It’s been ten years since the release of Welsh-Egyptian writer-director Sally El-Hosaini’s powerful debut My Brother the Devil and she’s still got tumultuous family ties on her mind with her stirring follow-up. This time, she focuses on the dramatic true story of two Syrian sisters and their perilous journey across Europe as displaced athletes with dreams of competing at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Casting real-life sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa as Sarah and Yusra Mardini brings an emotional truth to a film already brimming with cultural authenticity. El-Hosaini and her co-writer Jack Thorne (Enola Holmes) set the scene in Syria before the war cast a shadow on the Arab country. Families laugh and play in a rooftop swimming pool that could be mistaken for an English lido.
When the civil war forces the five members of the Mardini family to move out of their spacious home into a tiny flat, Sarah and Yusra sneak out to socialise at a club while rockets go off in the distance. Throughout, their gruelling training is maintained by their strict dad (Ali Suliman), even as older sister – and fellow swimmer – Sarah loses interest in the face of their grim circumstances. This establishes friction with Yusra, the star athlete in their dad’s eyes, and will spark further sisterly tensions as their ideals and motivations collide.
It’s an underdog story filled with love, humour and authenticity
A near-death experience forces the family to let the sisters seek asylum in Germany with their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek). Their route through Lebanon, Turkey and Greece is tracked in painstaking detail, with the sisters’ heroic efforts to cross the Aegean especially anxiety-inducing. This is the dangerous route that many asylum seekers take, and displaced people from Asia to Africa are humanised here by strong supporting performances from James Krishna Floyd, Elmi Rashid Elmi and Nahel Tzegai.
But The Swimmers isn’t simply a refugee film. It also captures a relatable sisterly dynamic filled with love, humour and resentment that the Issa sisters emphatically portray. El-Hosaini also delivers an underdog story, with some excitingly shot swimming sequences and training montages that add feelgood charm.
Not all heroes wear capes, some wear swimming caps – and The Swimmers is an empowering reminder that it is a human right to live safely, no matter where you come from
In UK cinemas now and streaming on Netflix Nov 23.