Yusra Mardini and Sally El Hosaini, the Protagonists of “The Swimmers,” Discuss the Inspiration for Their Novel!
Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with The Swimmers director Sally El Hosaini and the subject of the film Yusra Mardini about the importance of telling this true story through Netflix. The film was directed and co-written by Sally El Hosaini and co-written by Jack Thorne. The movie is now streaming on Netflix.
According to the movie’s summary, The Swimmers, which is based on a true story, follows a trip from war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics. Two young sisters set out on a perilous voyage as refugees, using both their champion swimming abilities and their emotions to great use.
Mr. Tyler Treese
Sally, this is such a remarkable true story, and you didn’t need to embellish it in any way to turn it into a fantastic movie. Could you elaborate on how these true events affected you and inspired you to create and direct this movie?
Absolutely, said Sally El Hosaini. I’m grateful. Working Title had gotten in touch with me with a screenplay when I first learned about the tale of Yusra and Sara. I was familiar with Yusra’s narrative, but not Sara’s. When I realized that Sara was both a hero and an unsung hero, this story was about two heroes. Because Yusra and Sara are the kinds of contemporary, young, liberal Arab women who infrequently show on our movie screens or have movies made about them, I felt even more motivated to tell this narrative. On some level, I adored that this was a sports movie.
I wanted young Arab women to see that motivating sports movie. So I really set out to create the movie that would have inspired me when I was 13 or 14 years old. Really, my goal was to challenge preconceived notions about what a refugee and these young women are.
Yusra, the two main actors in this movie are two sisters from Lebanon. How did it feel to witness your own family’s relationship being portrayed so effectively and powerfully by these two siblings?
Yusra Mardini: Just watching the movie and observing how well they performed it was fantastic. Obviously, the chemistry was fantastic. Having two siblings play two siblings was such a big deal, you know? It’s amazing. It was lovely to watch the scene where the three girls pursue the bird. It simply brought back memories of my sisters and me sharing a bedroom. However, they did a fantastic job, and I really enjoyed seeing it.
Sally, the swimming scenes in the entire movie looked fantastic. What presented the greatest difficulty in ensuring that those looked good?
Sally El Hosaini: We had to teach Nathalie and Manal Issa, who played Yusra and Sarah, how to swim because they couldn’t swim when they were cast. They really dove into that with such vigor, and I think that helped them connect with the characters as well. When we made this movie and shot it on location, there were several technological difficulties to overcome in addition to Covid. It is largely a road movie. You only stay in one place for a day before moving on.
On many levels, it was logistically and technically difficult, but in the end, we had a very enthusiastic crew that was totally dedicated to the project, which was also by design. As a result, many refugees contributed to the production of the film. A large number of refugees were also cast in the film. Many of the supporting performers who appeared in the dinghy during the Aegean Sea crossing were on that adventure personally and opted to be in the film because they wanted to portray it as accurately and truthfully as possible. So we made it through.
Oh my goodness, that sounds ridiculous! That was the exact reason we chose to tell the tale. Millions of people needed to learn that refugees are regular people who nonetheless endure horrible treks in search of safety. I want everyone to realize they can contribute. In the end, I’m just a regular girl who had to go through all of that, and it’s not just me, I want everyone to understand. There are millions of others who have had similar things. I count myself quite fortunate to have the movie. Overall, I consider it a huge honor. Every day or every other day, I watch Netflix. For me, it’s a major accomplishment to have my sister and I star in our own Netflix original movie.
As unique and wonderful as Yusra and Sara’s story is, it’s crucial to note that it only represents 1% of all stories. We kept that in mind while preparing the film and made sure to include the 99% as well. We accomplished that using the cousin Nizar and a few images that allow you to stand back and take in the overall scene. I really wanted the viewers to feel as though they had seen something beyond the possible news photographs. The goal of every creative choice was to place the audience in Yusra and Sara’s shoes and take them on their trip.