Synopsis: Syrian sisters, both competitive swimmers, flee war-torn Syria. The younger sister has hopes to become an Olympic swimmer. (Streaming on Netflix as of December 2022.)
When I’m at the pool, pretending to be in the Olympics passes the time as I swim laps. Spoiler alert: I always win the race. This is truly amazing since I am not actually athletic & swim less than an hour a day. The Swimmers is based on a true story of actual competitive swimmers. Sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini are two extraordinary young women whose daily lives in Syria, circa 2011, focused on training for swim competitions. One day, they would literally be swimming for their lives.
The Swimmers begins with the celebration of Yusra’s seventeenth birthday, with family and friends gathered at the family home in Damascus. Both girls have already spent the afternoon training with their coach dad. Yusra is the better swimmer, while Sara (a few years older), just seems to go along with the family business. Their family is “modern”; the girls don’t wear hajibs and their mom says that it was always her dream that her daughters would become well-educated and pursue careers of their choosing.
The film quickly establishes teenaged Yusra as the good sister. She is accepting of her parents’ decisions and is determined to fulfill her dream of swimming in the Olympics. Sara is the semi-bad sister. She doesn’t take training as seriously, challenges her dad’s authority and parties whenever she can slip out of the house. The women are played by real life sisters Nathalie (as Yusra) and Manal (as Sara) Mardini. Conveniently, the wild sister has untamed curls to help us remember that she is the rebel.
The family and the city residents try to get to work and school while the civil war sees parts of the city shelled and soldiers manhandling citizens. In one scene, Sara talks back to a soldier when he and his cohorts are interrogating people on a city bus. He punishes her and Sara by giving them a body search, ie, groping them.
Late at night, after the b-day party, Sara tells Yusra that they need to sneak out and go dancing at a club. Sara is very YOLO, so Yusra gives in to the pressure and they head out. When they arrive at the club, the revelry is in full swing. While they party, we can see the city sky lit up by rocket fire. Then there is a dance sequence in slo-mo, all the better for us to contemplate joie de vivre, but also the precariousness of life. Later on in the movie, the sisters always find someplace to dance, no matter where in the world they find themselves. I was pleased that Virile by the Blaze was sampled, but it made me wonder: what if you are a young Arab person who isn’t into club music? Can you still express your individuality and support for the Arab Spring movement? Yes, I think it is possible even if electronica is not your thing.
So, with president-for- life Bashar al-Assad bombing his own country back to the stone age and civilian deaths climbing, Sara lobbies her dad to support them in fleeing to Europe with their cousin, Nizar (Ahmed Malek). Sara isn’t sure what the right move is, but she wants to keep training and Damascus is in crisis.
Full of anxiety, the family agrees that it makes sense to get some of the family out of Syria. The mom, dad and youngest sister (elementary age) will stay. About this time in the movie, we see the sisters in their room, trying to coax Sara’s parakeet back into their cage for the night. The birb flits around near the ceiling and the slo-mo footage lets us know that flight is on the schedule for the girls too.
Short on cash, experience or any connections, the trio of sisters and cousin head to Turkey. This is how it always has been with war-forced displacement: young adults have the best chance of survival. They may be short on life experience, but their young bodies can best weather extreme physical challenges.
When their flight lands in Turkey, they are among legions of people looking for smugglers to boat them to Greece and, by extension, the rest of Europe. Good luck, because –surprise, surprise– human traffickers are not humanitarians. More like hardened criminals. But Sara, Yusra and Nizar do their best to contract with smugglers for passage.
Meanwhile, besides dreaming of not getting blown to bits in Syria, they are hopeful that the club scene is good in Berlin. I mean they are refugees, but they are still prime age for partying too. They are def up for the rigors of all-night dancing, but crossing the Aegean Sea is a unique challenge. And with no musical accompaniment.
So… no surprise here, the boat that they are plonked into is basically a rubber dinghy that looks like it would last about an afternoon in the community pool before succumbing. Dear god, is that a baby in that woman’s arms?! Yes, and there is no baby-sized life jacket for her. Out on open waters, Sara, Yusra and Nizar discern that only about half the people crammed onto the boat can swim. Since the dinghy’s sides are only about 6 inches high, every time there is a wave (constantly, since they are on the OCEAN!), the boat takes on water, and the people desperately try to bail it out with their hands.
The central part of The Swimmers marketing is that Yusra and Sara actually volunteer to swim alongside the boat to lighten the load. Can you imagine?! Oh, and the engine sputters to death on & off. Also, none of the human traffickers were going to captain the death dinghy, so the paying passengers/refugees have to navigate to land as best they can. Fortunately, there are people who figure things out. If I was piloting the dinghy, we’d end up right back in Turkey.
The perilous sea crossing is actually a relatively small part of the movie, and I think it was a missed opportunity to show some character development, but I guess the filmmaker wanted to get to Europe so we can see how Yusra can pursue her Olympic dream. First off: loads of paperwork and improvised training at the warehouse-with-tents refugee camps.
The details of refugee life are eye-opening, but the Olympic dream parts are not too exciting. It’s just basic “swim faster” stuff. The filmmakers could’ve tasked themselves with some of the particulars of training. I mean it’s not so challenging of viewers’ attention span to learn a little bit about how a swimmer can improve and give a feeling for why they love swimming.
Yusra and Sara –Nazir too–have so much to contend with, worrying about their families and prospects in Europe. But, thank god, we have hope for the future because there are more slo-mo dance scenes where they make a dance floor wherever they can. At one point, just the three of them sneak into an empty warehouse and dance their hearts out. I mean, it’s not clear if anyone even has a cellphone; where is the music coming from? And if they did, wouldn’t they–given the poor volume output– have to be within a foot of the phone at all times? Who can dance like that? But dance they do. Which I guess, just shows you the extraordinary mettle of these young people.
The Swimmers is indeed more about these swimmers than swimming. It made me think that those of us who don’t have to literally or metaphorically swim for our lives are incredibly fortunate… and that we all have a stake in somehow making the planet safer wherever people live. It also made me think that maybe I have to be more realistic and not always have myself winning the gold in my swimming pool flights of fancy. Just usually.
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