ComingSoon editor-in-chief Tyler Treese spoke 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 film is now streaming on Netflix.
“Based on a true story, The swimmers follows the journey from war-torn Syria to the Olympics in Rio 2016,” 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 incredibly true story and one you didn’t have to exaggerate to make it a great movie. Can you talk about how these real-life events resonated with you and made you want to write and direct this film?
Sally El Hosaini: Absolutely. Thank you! When I first heard about the story of Yusra and Sara, Working Title approached me with a script. I knew Yusra’s story but I didn’t know Sara’s. When I discovered that this was not only 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 Arabs. women who rarely appear on our cinema screens or have films made about them. I loved that on one level this was a sports movie. I wanted the inspirational sports movie to exist for young Arab women. So I really set out to make the movie that I would have seen when I was 13 or 14, that would have inspired me. It was my ambition to undermine the stereotypes of what a refugee is and what these young women are.
Yusra, the two main actors in this movie are two Lebanese sisters. What was it like to see your own family bond portrayed so well and with such influence by these two siblings?
Yusra Mardini: It was really amazing just to watch the movie and see what an amazing job they did. The chemistry was great of course. It was so important to have two siblings playing two siblings, you know? It’s incredible. Watching the scene where the three girls chased the bird…it was so, so lovely. It just reminded me of me and my sisters sleeping in the same room. But yes, they did a good job and I was very happy to see it.
Sally, the swimming scenes all looked good throughout the movie. What was the biggest challenge in making sure they 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 it with such determination which I think really helped them access the characters. There were many technical challenges, but we also had Covid to contend with when we were making this film and we were filming on the road. Much of it is a road movie. You are only in one place for one day and then you move on.
It was logistically and technically challenging on many levels, but in the end we had a very passionate team who were as committed to the project as they were to the design. So there were a lot of refugees working on the film. We also cast many refugees in the film. In the dinghy as it crosses the Aegean, the supporting artists … many had taken that journey themselves and chosen to be part of the film and wanted to represent it in an authentic and true way. So 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 wide reach. What does it mean to you that millions will 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 just for that. We wanted millions of people to understand that refugees are normal people, that refugees still go through the terrible journeys to get to safety. I want people to understand that they can help. I want people to understand that at the end of the day, I’m just a regular girl who had to go through all that, and it’s not just me. There are millions who have gone through similar stories. I was very, very lucky to be the one who got the movie. So overall it’s a great honor for me. I watch Netflix every day or every other day. Having my own movie with my sister on Netflix is really a big achievement for me.
Sally El Hosaini: It is also important to mention that as inspiring as Yusra and Sara’s story is, and as unique as it is, they are the 1% story. During the making of the film, we were so aware of that and that we also wanted to represent the 99%. We did that through the cousin, Nizar, and through some of the images where you step back and feel the context of the situation. I really wanted an audience to feel like they were going beyond the newsreels they might have seen. All the creative decisions that were made were to put the audience in Yusra and Sara’s shoes on the journey with them.
But there were those moments where we wanted to jump out and just give the context that this is still going on every day. Even when we were making the movie, we shot some of the dinghy scenes in the Aegean Sea in the real place where dinghies cross. When we were [filming in] the places we saw boats crossing, we saw coast guard ships chasing them. This is a situation that is alive and very much still going on. I hope it opens people’s eyes to it.