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TIFF 2022 Review: The Swimmers – “A decent crowd pleaser”

Courtesy of TIFF

According to the end credits of The Swimmers, it is estimated that there are 30 million refugees worldwide, half of which are under the age of 18.  One of those refugees was Yursa Mardini (Nathalie Issa) who along with her older sister Sara (Manal Issa) were competitive sisters from Syria.  Trained through their childhood by their father, who himself was a competitive swimmer, Yursa dreamt of going to the Olympics.  But by 2015, civil war is inching its way closer to their home in Damascus.  Sara sees little point in continuing to train, but Yursa never lets go, even as bombs disrupt a competitive match (and as Yursa literally comes face to face underwater with a dud explosive – one of many memorable moments of this film).

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With friends of theirs dying and the danger of staying escalating, the girls hear of an acquaintance who got to Germany, and if they can get there before Yursa turns 18 they might just be able to get the rest of her family there too through the country’s immigration policy.  Accompanied by their cousin (Ahmed Malek) they fly to Istanbul before continuing on their perilous journey, the first leg of which includes cramming onto an over-crowded patched up wreck of a boat to the shores of Greece.  No doubt the sisters’ swimming talents come into play here, but once they arrive in Europe, getting into Germany, along with a long marching line of other refugees, is still not without uncertainty.

The Swimmers, directed by Sally El Hosaini (My Brother the Devil) is relatively conventional, though its tone shifts between refugee story and sports drama.  Those who saw last year’s Flee are bound to find similarities in this live-action version of this journey, though every refugee’s story is unique and compelling.  The sisters’ passage to find safety is when Swimmers is at its best and when El Hosaini truly shows her considerable cinematic talents behind the camera. There are harrowing scenes in the ocean where the group of travellers floats helplessly amidst punishing waves, a tense and chilling sequence.  When they arrive, a wide shot slowly reveals the mounds of life jackets discarded along the beach – each representing a life that crossed the ocean. One of my favourite shots are before the sisters leave Damascus, where they dance carefree on a rooftop while missiles light up the night sky behind them.  This is when the film is most impactful and powerful.

However, the tone shifts considerably once the sisters meet swim coach Sven (Matthias Schweighöfer) in Germany.  Then, once Yursa is given a chance to again live her dreams of going to the Rio Olympics, the film turns into straight forward sports drama, complete with training montage to the song ‘Unstoppable’ by Sia.  We lose so much of the emotion that El Hosaini and her wonderful cast create.  And this cast includes the absolutely spectacular real-life sisters of Nathalie and Manal Issa, who are amazing talents and who of course can nail the required sibling chemistry of their real-life counterparts.  The Swimmers floats because of them.

The Swimmers is a decent crowd pleaser, a good rainy day Netflix watch, but it never achieves more than this despite its potential.  Yet Sally El Hosaini, who this year receives TIFF’s Emerging Talent award, shows why she is one to watch.  She’s created a film with images that even days later I’m still thinking about, imprinted in my mind, and that’s a lasting impression that’s apt to continue even past the festival.  I’d love to see what she could do with Sara Mardini’s story that continues after their travel to Germany.  Based on the film’s ending frames that reveal where the sisters are now, that seems like another gripping tale from this brave and courageous family.

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