When you see The Swimmers, you quickly understand why the drama, which shines a light on the continued refugee crisis, was chosen to open the Toronto International Film Festival.
Though some artistic licence is taken, the film is based on the true story of Yusra and Sarah Mardini, two teenage sisters who escaped war in Syria for Europe in the hope of making it to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Portrayed by Lebanese actresses and real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa, the film follows their journey as they flee the war in Damascus in 2015 and make a harrowing journey to Berlin.
Warning: spoilers follow.
Their father and swimming coach, played by Palestinian actor Ali Suliman, helps them leave for Europe via Turkey after the family miraculously survives a bombing that occurs in the middle of a swimming competition.
One of the film's most gripping scenes takes place during the competition, when Yusra, played by Nathalie Issa, comes face to face with an unexploded bomb in the middle of the pool.
From Turkey, the sisters travel by sea to Lesbos in Greece via an overloaded dinghy, run by shady smugglers.
The dinghy’s motor that fails minutes into the ride compels Sarah to jump into the water to save it from capsizing. Yusra follows suit and they both help to bring everyone on the boat to safety.
It is this particular part of the story that makes it so compelling. The water scenes in the film feel the most riveting, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.
However, it is when the sisters, along with their cousin Nizar — played by Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek — and the rest of the refugees on board arrive in Lesbos that we realise how many have risked their lives in taking this traumatic journey, as a striking wide drone shot shows thousands of abandoned life jackets on the shore.
Directed by Egyptian-Welsh director Sally El-Hosaini (My Brother the Devil), the film also stars Syrian actress Kinda Alloush, German actor Matthias Schweighofer and British actor James Floyd.
The music at times feels loud and inappropriate. Sia’s Titanium and Unstoppable, for example, seem too lyrical to suit the theme of survival. Other tracks, such as songs by Arab artists like Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi and Palestinian band 47Soul, feel more authentic.
The film’s screenplay, co-written by El-Hosaini and award-winning screenwriter Jack Thorne, is rich, with layers of themes — the relationship between the sisters, the trauma of the refugee experience and the guilt of survival. However, much of the authenticity is taken away when the dialogue between the sisters is mostly in English, even when the conversation is serious.
While The Swimmers is described as an inspirational story, it is also a poignant reminder of the plight of refugees around the world. As Nizar tells Yusra and Sarah in one scene: “If only I could swim.” In reality, not all refugees are the Mardini sisters, not everyone has made it to shore and not everyone is accepted if they do.
Before the film’s screenings on Friday, El-Hosaini, who will also be honoured with the Emerging Talent Award at TIFF on Sunday, told audiences what it meant to be at the festival this year.
“This film has been a real labour of love. So much love poured into it. Sleepless nights, sweat and tears and it’s such an honour to share it with you,” she said.
“And it really shows what this city and festival stands for, in giving a film like this such an incredible platform.”
The Swimmers will be released on Netflix on November 23.