The Swimmers (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Swimmer sisters from Syria

“The Swimmers”, which was released on Netflix a few days ago, is a solid drama film which did its job a bit better than expected. Based on a real-life story of two Syrian swimmer sisters who had to leave their country just like many other refugees around the world, the movie diligently handles its story and characters with a considerable amount of sincerity and thoughtfulness, and it surely earns some feel-good moments in the end while never overlooking the harsh reality surrounding its two main characters and many others around them.

The opening part of the film shows how things were mostly all right for Yusra Mardini (Nathalie Issa) and her older sister Sara Mardini (Manal Issa) in 2011. Although their country was on the verge of being shaken up by the Arab Spring movement during that time, they and their family were not concerned much as continuing their mundane daily life in Damascus, and their father Ezzat (Ali Suliman), who has been their swimming coach, keeps training them as before, while hoping that his dear daughters will compete in the Olympics someday.

Four years later, Damascus still seems to be fairly safe despite the ongoing civil war, and both Yusra and Mardini does not mind having some exciting time out there along with their friends, but they and their family soon come to face that harsh reality which surrounds them and many others more and more as time goes by. At one point, Yusra’s latest swimming competition is suddenly disrupted by an unexpected airstrike, and this horrible incident makes Yusra and Mardini consider leaving their country for their athletic career.

Although they are reluctant to let their dear daughters leave the country, Yusra and Mardini’s parents eventually agree to allow that because they really care about their daughters’ future. They are understandably concerned because Yusra and Mardini are going to take lots of risk while trying to go to Europe just like many other refugees out there, but Yusra and Mardini are accompanied by their male cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek), and Nizar promises to their parents that he will protect his dear cousins as much as possible, though he reluctantly joins them at the last minute.

Once they arrive in Istanbul, Turkey along with Nizar, Yusra and Mardini embark on searching for any possible way to go to Greece, and that is the beginning of their harrowing journey across the Europe continent. At one point, they and many other refugees have no choice but to use a very small motorboat for going to one certain island of Greece, and, not so surprisingly, the situation becomes quite dire when the motorboat suddenly stops in the middle of the sea due to some mechanical problem.

At least, they and the other refugees all manage to arrive in the island, and the movie often emphasize the considerable social gaps between them and those affluent tourists in the island. When they need to have a shower at one point, Yusra and Mardini decide to go to a beach for tourists, and the mood becomes a bit more cheerful as they put a bit of disguise on themselves for avoiding any suspicion.

Even after they and the other refugees put their feet on the Europe continent, the situation remains risky and desperate as before. They will have to cross several borderlines for going to Germany, and, of course, those local authorities are not going to allow that at all. In case of those seedy smugglers, some of them simply exploit refugees while others do help a bit, and there is one painful scene where Yusra has a very traumatic moment before eventually saved by her older sister.

Anyway, thanks to some good luck, Yusra and Mardini manage to arrive in Germany along with Nizar, but things still do not look good to them. They are allowed to stay in a facility for refugees in Berlin, but they remain stuck there as going through one bureaucratic step after another, and they are also quite frustrated when they belatedly come to realize that they may not be allowed to get their family out of Syria.

Nevertheless, Yusra and Mardini still stick to their professional aspiration. Although they have no one to help around them, they boldly approach to one local swimming club, and their talent and boldness certainly impress its coach, who generously lets them move into the dormitory building of his swimming club. Quite determined to compete in the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Yusra drives herself more and more, but her older sister becomes less passionate about swimming compared to her, and that certainly leads to some personal conflict between them.

Although what eventually follow next will not surprise you much, the screenplay by director Sally El Hosaini and her co-writer Jack Thorne seldom loses its focus on the story and characters, and the unadorned natural acting of Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa, who are actually sisters in real-life, carries to the film to the end. In addition, they are supported well by a number of good performers including Ahmed Malek, Matthias Schweighöfer, James Krishna Floyd, Kinda Alloush, and Ali Suliman, and Schweighöfer, who considerably dials down himself here compared to his showier supporting turn in “Army of the Dead” (2021), makes an interesting contrast to the more stoic appearance of Suliman, whom I still fondly remember for his unforgettable performance in Oscar-nominated Palestinian film “Paradise Now” (2005).

In conclusion, “The Swimmers”, which is El Hosaini’s second feature film after her debut feature film “My Brother the Devil” (2012), is conventional but engaging thanks to its good acting and storytelling, and I found myself more emotionally engaged than expected even though I knew exactly what I would get from the beginning. Like recent Disney+ movie “Rise” (2022), this is indeed a standard feel-good drama, but it is done well with enough care and respect, so I will not grumble for now.

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