‘The Swimmers’ Director Sally El Hosaini, Stars Talk About Real-Life Immigrant Story

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Sally El Hosaini’s “The Swimmers,” which opened the Toronto Film Festival and also opens Zurich Film Festival, is a true-life drama that gives festgoers something to cheer about.

It’s the story of Syrian immigrants Yusra and Sarah Mardini, two normal teenagers in Syria — both are champion swimmers, coached by their father. Both are training for the Olympics — although Yusra more than Sarah, who loves to dance and hang out with her friends. It’s a loving family forced to make a difficult choice to send their daughters on a dangerous journey to seek asylum in Germany as the war intensifies in Syria, for their own good and eventually, that of the rest of the family.

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While the film takes audiences on the arduous journey from Syria to Germany — the sisters save the lives of everyone on their small boat by jumping into the sea and swimming them all to safety — it doesn’t wallow in pity but highlights the complicated stories, intelligence and resilience of all the asylum-seekers. It’s a portrait of strength. Yusra swam in the 2016 and 2021 Summer Games, while Sarah went back to Greece to work with refugees.

“You know, when dealing with a subject like this, where we’ve all seen these images on the news of this story — a lot of the journey is something we’ve all experienced through our TV screens and we’ve seen news footage of that journey — it was really important for me that the film went behind the news images and made the audience feel like they were on the journey.”

She also wanted to create a dream world too, which was always under the surface of the water.

”Underwater things are not what they seem. Things are unreal. It’s almost poetic,” El Hosaini says.

Sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa play Sarah and Yura, respectively.

El Hosaini was searching for actors who had accents close to Syrian accents, and could act in Arabic and English. She hit the jackpot with the Issa sisters.

Manal was happy to show a side of the Middle East that’s not seen a lot on Western screens. “They weren’t stereotypical Muslim women that often are portrayed for Westerners with the head coverings,” she says. “There was no lying. It was really us.”

Nathalie says, “It was great to work with my sister. It was fun. I was learning a lot from her. I was seeing how she was working. I discovered also we work differently and it was really interesting to see her on set and discovering how she works. And it was great because we were giving each other advice whether professionally or personally and she was really a great help.”

The sisters also became friends with the real-life siblings they were playing.

“It was so important to me that they would the right girls with the right energy and also sisters, yes. I mean, they bought so much of themselves to the roles because of that relationship and there’s a lot for me as a director to draw from,” says El Hosaini, who also co-wrote the script with Jack Thorne.

 

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