There’s a scene in Sally El-Hosaini’s The Swimmers that was so intense it pushed several of the cast to the point where the production had to take a break. Some were physically sick. “When you see the actors vomiting [in the film], they’re really vomiting,” claims the director.
The scene in question is the most harrowing and difficult to watch of the TIFF curtain-raiser. But it’s the most important one in the whole film. And the reason it exists.
Based on tragically very real-life events, the Working Title/Netflix feature charts the incredible story of Yusra and Sara Mardini, teenage Syrian sisters who fled Damascus in 2015 as the devastating civil war began to creep closer to their home. After reaching Turkey, out of desperation to cross the Aegean Sea to the Greek island of Lesbos, they paid smugglers to board a boat that was dangerously overcrowded with 18 fellow refugees.
Halfway across the water, the engine stopped and the boat began taking on water, at which point the girls — who had both swum for their country — heroically leaped overboard with two others and swam for over three hours to the other side while dragging the boat with them. Everyone survived.
To shoot the scene, El-Hosaini, who co-wrote the script with Jack Thorne, didn’t just use real-life mobile footage from the perilous — and, sadly, notoriously deadly — crossing, but actually cast several refugees who had made it over the water themselves.
“It was emotional,” she notes. “But everyone really wanted this story to be told, and for it to reach people. Because my biggest ambition and the reason for this level of authenticity is because I wanted audiences to feel like they were on this journey with the characters.”
But it wasn’t only for audiences. One Syrian family — now living in Turkey — didn’t take the crossing but still wanted to be involved in the scene (which shot in Turkey). “The parents felt it was really important for their three kids to experience it and understand what so many other members of their extended family and friends had gone through,” says El-Hosaini.
Since she made her breakout with the acclaimed London crime drama My Brother the Devil in 2013 (starring a young Letitia Wright in her film debut), many in the cinema world had been waiting to see what the filmmaker, born in Wales but raised in Cairo, would do next.
She directed some TV (including episodes of the Danny Boyle-produced London police comedy-drama Babylon) and worked on several projects that she was trying to get off the ground (including an ambitious feature about the Jonestown Massacre). But there was no rush. “I work with a compass, not the clock,” she says. “It’s always been about quality, not quantity. You spend years of your life making these things, so it has to be for emotional reasons.”
Then The Swimmers — which was first announced in 2017 — came along, and she had to press the pause button on everything else. “It sounds so cliche, but it’s one of those things where you just know that you’re in position to do it, and that you’re the right person.”
By the time El-Hosaini joined the project, Thorne had already written the first script. But the director notes that she had a “very specific” way she wanted the Mardini girls to be. So the two began working together. “Jack is so lovely, generous and clever, and he had built the most amazing structure, and it felt like I was able to go in and retrieve the dialogue and move the furniture about and bring what I could do it.”
Among the aspects El-Hosaini was able to add were elements that reminded her of her own teenage years in Cairo: years of fun, school, sibling relationships and very normal moments of adolescence. Because, unlike many films touching on refugees, or even the Middle East for that matter, The Swimmers shows the sisters — played by real-life Lebanese sisters Nathalie Issa (Yusra) and Manal Issa (Sara) — as teenagers being teenagers and living very recognizable middle-class lives — even with the civil war ongoing in the background.
“So often in cinema, young Arab women are victimized or very religious, or just a certain type of woman that I don’t relate to as much,” El-Hosaini says. “There’s a whole section of society that never makes it to cinema screens.”
To find the two leads, an extensive casting search went on for well over a year. Initially, El-Hosaini had been looking for Syrian actors, but she soon discovered that the paperwork situation for most of the main contenders — many of whom were in the process of their own specific refugee status — would make it impossible for them to travel to London, Brussels and Turkey for the shoot.
Wanting native Arabic speakers (the first section of the film, in Syria, is all in Arabic), she expanded the search to Lebanese, Jordanian and Palestinian names, which is where Manal Issa, whom El-Hosaini remembered from an independent Lebanese film, came into the picture.
As luck would have it, Manal mentioned that she had a sister, Nathalie, then in Paris studying for a master’s degree in literature. She wasn’t an actress, but had a very small role in a film, with a couple of lines. Both were convinced to audition. “As soon as I saw them together and the chemistry that real sisters bring, there’s just something magical there that you can’t re-create. That was a no-brainer for me.”
There was one issue, however. Neither of the sisters could swim. So they started having daily lessons, worked out and went on a nutrition plan. “I think it was a bit of a shock to the system for the pair of them,” notes El-Hosaini. “Obviously, we weren’t going to get them to a level of being Olympic swimmer, so we had a team of doubles.”
Rather poetically, one of the doubles was Yusra Mardini herself.
Although the use of Olympic-standard doubles may seem a little excessive, The Swimmers doesn’t just take the story up to the heroic Aegean crossing. It carries on to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, where Yusra famously competed for the newly formed Refugee Olympic Athletes Team. But to get to this euphoric point, there was an arduous, dangerous and emotionally fraught journey, even beyond the perilous boat ride.
After eventually landing in Italy, the sisters joined many thousands of refugees from across the Middle East, Africa and Asia as they struggled to make their way across Europe to Germany (where they currently live), on the way being scammed and abused by smugglers, caught up in anti-refugee sentiment and facing demoralizing levels of red tape. Because as much as the film’s central story is that of the Mardini sisters — who are effectively the 1 percent of those who successfully made new lives for themselves in their newly adopted countries — El-Hosaini wanted to use The Swimmers to “honor the 99 percent” whose stories weren’t the same.
To help achieve this, she created the fictionalized character of the sisters’ cousin Nizar (played by Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek, who starred in Mohamed Diab’s Clash). Although the girls did travel with two male cousins, these were amalgamated into one character, “to allow us to tell the story of most refugees.” Through Nizar, a budding DJ and musician back in Damascus, the stark reality for those battling the seemingly endless hurdles and bureaucracy of refugee status is exposed, with his lust for life — and feeling of self-worth and sense of identity — slowly crushed with each step. Others in the film don’t even make it into Europe and are sent back home.
“Because it’s not necessarily that happy ending,” El-Hosaini says. “That’s the reason why Yusra and Sara’s story is so extraordinary and remarkable and inspiring. Because it’s unique. Yet you also need to honor reality.”