In ‘The Swimmers’ Film, Director Sally El Hosaini and Olympian Yusra Mardini Bring the Refugee Experience to the Screen

Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini, Manal Issa as Sara Mardini, Ahmed Malek as Nizar. (Laura Radford / Netflix)

In 2015, sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini, trained as professional swimmers by their father, fled Syria with hopes of escaping their war-torn homeland and securing passage for the rest of their family (mother, father and younger sister) once they’d sought asylum in Europe.

During the harrowing 25-day journey, they—like so many migrants before them—found themselves on an overcrowded raft crossing the Aegean Sea. When the dinghy’s motor broke and the boat began to sink, Yusra and Sara, alongside only a couple other passengers who knew how to swim, jumped into the frigid waters to drag the boat to shore.

They swam for over three hours, and their heroism likely saved the lives of everyone onboard. Eventually granted asylum in Germany, Yusra began training again at a Berlin pool and was selected to compete as part of the Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Now, their story has been captured in an evocative biographical drama directed by Sally El Hosaini and released on Netflix last month. Inspiring and incisive, The Swimmers chronicles the sisters’ story—beautifully crafted by actors Nathalie and Manal Issa, who are also sisters in real life, alongside an excellent supporting cast—with careful attention to authenticity and a broader message about the struggles and dreams of fellow refugees whose stories are not often heard.

I had the chance to speak with El Hosaini and Yusra Mardini about the experience of making The Swimmers, how to tell true stories, and what they hope viewers will take away from the film.

Aviva Dove-Viebahn: Sally, you’ve chosen to make a drama rather than a documentary. How does the film try to capture the truth of Yusra and Sara’s experience, but also frame it in a way that’s compelling for an audience who’s coming to see a biopic?

Sally El Hosaini: I think that sometimes in movies and in fiction, it can be more powerful than when you’re dealing in factual [footage] because we see a lot of news images of overcrowded dinghies of refugees, and it’s very easy to disconnect, to sympathize.

Even in sympathizing, there’s a distance that’s created. The word ‘sympathy’ sometimes makes you feel like you are an outside observer judging or watching the other, and there’s that imbalance somehow.

In drama, you can empathize. I think that what we were really striving for was to build that empathy so that the audience felt like they were going on the journey with Yusra and Sara, joining them on that journey.

In this film, we chose to make everything above the water objective reality and everything underwater subjective, and underwater is a place of dreams and hopes and nightmares. It’s those more emotive parts of the movie that really connect emotionally with an audience.

The word refugee has become so political, and when you talk about numbers sometimes that can disconnect you from the reality and dehumanize. In this film, we really wanted to humanize refugees, not just Yusra and Sara, but all the refugees in the movie and on that journey. And to honor the larger refugee story.

What we were really striving for was to build that empathy so the audience felt like they were going on the journey with Yusra and Sara, joining them on that journey.

Sally El Hosaini

Production still from The Swimmers. (L to R) Elmi Rashid Elmi as Bilal, Ahmed Malek as Nizar, Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini, Nahel Tzegai as Shada, Manal Issa as Sara Mardini, James Krishna Floyd as Emad. (Laura Radford / Netflix)

Dove-Viebahn: One of the ways that you’re able to create this sense of empathy, and that is really striking in the film, is that you cast sisters to play Yusra and Sara [Nathalie and Manal Issa].

Yusra, what was it like to interact with these actors who were playing you and your sister, and what role did you have in speaking to them about your experiences?

Yusra Mardini: To be honest, it was incredible. It was really the right choice.

I know that Sally wasn’t necessarily looking for sisters to cast, but of course the dynamic was very, very important because of the dynamic between me and my sister. We had this really unique relationship since we were very young. We can rely on each other. Sally mentioned earlier that it is nice to see that in the movie; when I was vulnerable, sad, she was strong for me, and the opposite: when she’s vulnerable, I am strong for her.

Watching the girls portray us in such an amazing way was very interesting. And they probably faced some challenges on set as well; they learned how to swim in two months! They did not know how to swim before the movie. So, they do have determination, and it’s interesting to watch how they portrayed us. I’m very proud, and I am very happy with the outcome.

Dove-Viebahn: Sally, can you speak to the casting process?

El Hosaini: I wanted to find native Arabic speaking actors who were also bilingual and could act in English.

I started by looking for young Syrian women to play these roles, and it became quickly apparent that a lot of the young women we were talking to and who were auditioning had very complicated paperwork situations. They were spread out in the Syrian diaspora across many other countries, and with their varying degrees of paperwork, it wasn’t going be possible for them to come to the U.K., Turkey, Belgium, Germany, and all the places we needed them to be to film. So, we expanded the search to other Arabic countries.

I had seen Manal in some Lebanese independent films, and I thought she’d be great. When she was auditioning, we were talking about sisterhood, and she mentioned she had a little sister, Nathalie, who wasn’t an actor.

I became very interested in Nathalie and was asking, “Do you think she’d want to audition? Do you think she’d be interested?” So, we reached out to her through Manal, and Nathalie agreed to come and screen test for the film.

When I saw the two of them together, I knew that I’d found the two actors to play the Mardini sisters. Their dynamic—there was so much to draw from as a director, so much depth there, the relationship that they have with each other, that it was a no-brainer, really. You’d work very hard as a director to recreate that with two people who aren’t sisters, and the fact that they were sisters just was an incredible stroke of luck.

Manal Issa as Sara Mardini, and Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini. (Ali Güler / Netflix)

Dove-Viebahn: They’re amazing together. Their connection really resonates. So, when I saw they were sisters, I thought, “Oh, of course! That makes sense.” 

One thing I really love about this film is how you portray a story that’s hopeful and inspiring, but you also acknowledge that this is not the experience that everyone has. Why did either or both of you feel it was important to show both aspects of this story? And how did you make decisions about what to show in terms of the migration experience or the experience of being in the refugee camp in Berlin?

Mardini: To me, the most important thing was to be authentic, to be as honest as possible. And I love that Sally did that.

It is a movie about a real-life story; of course, I knew that there would be fiction, but I was a bit scared of the fiction. But when I watched it, I knew exactly why they chose to fictionalize it. Most of the scenes that were fictionalized were fictionalized because of the bigger picture, because of the bigger story, because they wanted to show other refugee stories and not just me and my sister. That was really important for me because that’s the way I think. That’s the way I’ve been thinking for years now.

I’ve been sharing my story as much as I can, so I can bring awareness. I can let people know and understand what a refugee is. I can also bring awareness about why refugees do become refugees and that we did have a normal life back in Syria, but we had to leave because of war, because of violence, because we wanted a better chance in life, and we deserve the simplest human rights anyone should get. That was how it was for me.

We did have a normal life back in Syria, but we had to leave because of war, because of violence, because we wanted a better chance in life, and we deserve the simplest human rights anyone should get.

Yusra Mardini

Behind the scenes filming The Swimmers, with director Sally El Hosaini. (Laura Radford / Netflix)

Dove-Viebahn: Sally, what do you hope viewers will take away from this film, especially in relation to what Yursa was just saying about her and Sara’s story, but also the larger global picture of the refugee experience?

El Hosaini: I hope that this film reminds people that refugees are ordinary people just like you and me.

I also hope that the film subverts some tired stereotypes about what a refugee is, who a refugee is, and also about what an Arab woman is and how the Middle East is portrayed. It was very important to me that the Middle East wasn’t a beige palette the way it so often is in cinema, but it was a vibrant place of color and life as it is for someone who lives there and experiences it.

My quest for authenticity is so important. Nobody wants to make a fake film. So always, in my filmmaking, authenticity’s important—but especially in this story because I felt a real responsibility to Yusra and Sara, but also to the larger story of refugees. Because as inspirational as Yusra and Sara’s story is, it is unique because it is the 1 percent story. And I wanted to honor the 99 percent of refugees that maybe don’t have that happy ending.

We did that through fictionalizing—the cousin Nizar, for example. Yusra and Sara traveled with two cousins [in real life]. They were combined into a composite character initially and then we went further to fictionalizing Nizar slightly to make him the everyman and represent the larger experience of refugees who don’t have the happy ending. He’s lost at the end of the movie. He’s trapped in a system; he’s in limbo. It’s not always the inspirational ending.

There were a lot of refugees who worked on the movie, both casting the movie and behind the scenes, and that helped bring a tone and an honesty and an authenticity as well. We went to great lengths to make sure everything was very well researched in the film.

Dove-Viebahn: While I have you both here, I wanted to say that it all this comes across beautifully—the level of the authenticity and the depth of the research. We get a strong sense of who these characters are.

There’s another character, Shada, a young woman with a baby from Eritrea; she becomes this incredibly effective character, and I, at least, really wanted to know what happens to her. And then we get this little grace note where we find out a bit about her experience at the end.

I realize we’re out of time, but I wanted to say that. I think you’ve made a beautiful film. And, Yusra, you and your sister’s story is amazing. Thank you.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.