ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with The Swimmers director Sally El Hosaini and the subject of the film Yusra Mardini about the importance of telling this true story through Netflix. The film was directed and co-written by Sally El Hosaini and co-written by Jack Thorne. The movie is now streaming on Netflix.
“Based on a true story, The Swimmers follows the journey from war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics,” reads the film’s synopsis. “Two young sisters embark on a harrowing journey as refugees, putting both their hearts and champion swimming skills to heroic use.”
Tyler Treese: Sally, this is such an incredible true story and one you didn’t have to exaggerate any to make it into a great film. Can you speak about how these real-life events resonated with you and made you want to write and direct this movie?
Sally El Hosaini: Absolutely. Thank you! When I first heard about the story of Yusra and Sara, Working Title had contacted me with a screenplay. I knew Yusra’s story, but I didn’t know Sara’s. When I discovered that this wasn’t just about one hero, but also an unsung hero in Sara — two heroes — I was even more inspired to tell this story, but mostly because Yusra and Sara are the type of modern, young, liberal Arab women who rarely appear on our cinema screens or have movies made about them. I loved that this, on one level, was a sports movie. I wanted that inspirational sports movie to exist for young Arab women. So I really set out to make the movie that I wanted to watch when I was 13 or 14 that would’ve inspired me. That was my ambition, to subvert the stereotypes, really, of what a refugee is and what these young women are.
Yusra, the two lead actresses in this film are two Lebanese sisters. How was it seeing your own family bond being portrayed so well and with such impact by these two siblings?
Yusra Mardini: It was really great just to watch the movie and to watch how great of a job they did. The chemistry was amazing, obviously. It was such an important thing to have two siblings play two siblings, you know? It’s incredible. Watching the scene where the three girls chase the bird … it was so, so nice. It just reminded me of me and my sisters sleeping in the same room. But yeah, they did a great job, and I was very happy watching it.
Sally, the swimming scenes all looked great throughout the film. What was the biggest challenge of making sure those looked good?
Sally El Hosaini: Nathalie [Issa] and Manal [Issa], who played Yusra and Sarah, couldn’t swim when they were cast, so we had to teach them how to swim. They really threw themselves into that with such determination, which I think really helped them access the characters as well. There were a lot of technical challenges, but also we had Covid to contend with when we made this movie and we filmed on the road. A lot of it’s a road movie. You’re only in a location for one day and then you move on.
It was logistically and technically challenging on lots of levels, but ultimately we had a very passionate team who was so committed to the project, which was also by design. So there were a lot of refugees who worked on the movie. We cast a lot of refugees in the movie as well. In the dinghy, when it’s crossing the Aegean Sea, those supporting artists … many had taken that journey themselves and chose to be part of the movie, wanting to represent it in an authentic and true way. S o we got through it.
Yusra, I think it’s so great that this is on Netflix because your story is so impactful and it has such a large reach. What does it mean for you that millions are going to be able to stream this on day one?
Yusra Mardini: Oh … that sounds crazy to me! When we decided to share the story, it was exactly for that. We wanted millions of people to understand that refugees are normal people, that refugees are still going through those horrific journeys to get to safety. I want people to understand that they can help. I want people to understand that in the end, I’m just an ordinary girl that had to go through all of that, and it’s not only me. There are millions that went through similar stories. I was very, very lucky to be the one that has the movie. So in general, it is a great honor for me. I watch Netflix every day or every other day. To have my own movie with my sister on Netflix is really a big accomplishment for me.
Sally El Hosaini: It’s important to mention also that as inspirational as Yusra and Sara’s story is and as unique as it is, they are the 1% story. In the making the movie, we were so mindful of that and that we wanted to also represent the 99%. We did that through the cousin, Nizar, and through some of those shots where you step back and feel the context of the situation. I really wanted an audience to feel like they went beyond the news images that they may have seen. All the creative decisions that were made were to put the audience in the shoes of Yusra and Sara on the journey with them.
But there were those moments where we wanted to pop out and just give the context that this is still continuing every day. Even when we were making the movie, we shot some of those dinghy scenes in the Agean Sea in the real place where dinghies are crossing. When we were [filming in] those locations, we saw boats crossing, we saw Coast Guard ships chasing them. This is a situation that’s live and very much still going on. I hope that it opens people’s eyes to that.
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