'The Swimmers': film on Syrian sisters who saved refugees at sea to open Zurich festival

Director Sally El Hosaini says it 'honours those who risk their lives to have a better, safer life'

Lebanese sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa play the roles of Yusra and Sara Mardini in 'The Swimmers'. Photo: Netflix
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The eagerly anticipated film adaptation of the heroic true story of two Syrian sisters who saved refugees from drowning will have its European premiere in Switzerland next month.

Sally El Hosaini’s drama The Swimmers follows the journey of Yusra and Sara Mardini from war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics after using their swimming skills to save lives following a treacherous boat journey at sea.

The feature from the Egyptian-Welsh filmmaker will open the 18th Zurich Film Festival on September 22, following its world premiere at the opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival 2022 in Canada on September 8.

Co-written by Jack Thorne (of Help, Enola Holmes and Wonder fame), The Swimmers is produced by British creative outfit Working Title Films and Netflix. It was shot in the UK, Belgium and Turkey.

El Hosaini said she was thrilled to share the “extraordinary true life story” of refugees with a European audience at a time of growing anti-immigration sentiment on the continent.

“Never has there been such an important time for Europeans to see a film that elevates the visibility of refugees and honours those who risk their lives to have a better, safer life,” the filmmaker said.

Sally El Hosaini gained international recognition for her 2012 debut feature film 'My Brother the Devil', which won a slew of awards. Photo: The Arab British Centre

Calling the film “deeply moving and timely”, The Swimmers’ artistic director Christian Jungen said it shone a light on the refugee crisis while also being “uplifting and inspiring”.

The Mardini sisters fled Syria in 2015 after their house was destroyed in the civil war, making their way first to neighbouring Lebanon and on to Turkey, where they arranged to be smuggled into Greece by dinghy.

They became internationally recognised heroines when, in the middle of the Aegean Sea, the motor of the overcrowded dinghy they were on cut out 15 minutes into the trip and the sisters swam for three and a half hours holding the boat up to stop it from capsizing.

They later settled in Germany, where Yusra started training again with coach Sven Spannekrebs before competing at the 2016 Olympic Games as part of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Lebanese actresses Manal and Nathalie Issa, who are sisters in real life, portray Yusra and Sarah in the film.

Ali Suliman, Ahmed Malek, Kinda Alloush and James Krishna Floyd, who also appeared in El Hosaini’s multi-award-winning My Brother the Devil, will star in the film.

Updated: August 26, 2022, 10:27 AM