The Swimmers, a film released on Netflix in November, is based on the true story of two Syrian sisters, Sara and Yusra Mardini. They were both trained as swimmers by their father, whose own aspirations to become an Olympic swimmer had been thwarted by military service. But, even as they trained, the bombardment of war approached their neighbourhood.
Eventually they become refugees
The early scenes show them with modern urban social life, enjoying dancing to pop music. This may counter common Western assumptions that all Islamic societies are strictly bound by convention and all women wear a burqa, or hijab. But this is authentic as the real sisters provided the material for the script, and the film-maker, Sally el-Hosaini, is Arabic-speaking. The dialogues are mostly in Arabic, sub-titled in English.
Decision to flee Syria
When war gets closer in 2015, there is one shocking incident after another: first, one of their friends is killed, then soldiers start bullying girls in search operations, then a bomb falls near the pool where Yusra is competing. Finally, the two sisters persuade their reluctant father that they must flee to Germany, which is offering a family reunion scheme to child refugees. Yusra would qualify as she is still under 18, but there is no time to lose. So, they find a male cousin to accompany them and their father borrows money for their journey, hoping eventually that this will provide them all with a safe route to Western Europe.
People smuggler paid to get on a boat to Lesbos
Initially on the flight to Turkey via Beirut they are like teenagers setting off on a gap year. Once there, the cousin, Nizar, has some difficulty getting advice on how to go via Bulgaria which was rumoured to be the safest route at that time. Finally, he pays a smuggler to get them on a boat to Lesbos. They join a group of other refugees waiting on a forested slope by the sea. They are a varied bunch, not only from Syria but also from Sudan, from Afghanistan, and from Eritrea (a woman with a baby).
Eventually the smuggler takes them to the embarkation point, where he inflates a boat too small to take the whole group, but he forces most of them on anyway, shows one of them how to steer, pulls the engine-starter and pushes the boat off the shore. Some of the most nightmarish scenes of this film are when this overcrowded boat, in the midst of the choppy Aegean sea, begins to sink. So, this is what it is like for those who dare to take the Channel crossing, also forced to use overloaded inflatables! They fling overboard the extra bag they were allowed to carry, which includes all Yusra’s precious swimming medals.
Swimming and walking on the refugee trail
Then she leads a heroic attempt to save the voyage: she leaps into the sea, along with the few others who could swim, to lighten the boat. Thus, all eventually reach the shore at the island of Lesbos. There is no welcome party. They struggle even to find drinking water in the streets of the nearest town where it is obvious the populace is tired of refugees. As they walk wearily on the road to the camp, the path is strewn with discarded life-jackets – thousands of them. This is a path where thousands have gone before them.
They are taken by ferry to the Greek mainland, and then decide to continue on the refugee trail on foot along the rail-lines north via Serbia and Hungary to Germany. There are other heart-stopping moments as they try to climb border fences patrolled by guards with dogs, or try to get transport at a Hungarian motor depot where a young man assaults Yusra. They are almost ready to give up and spend the last of their money in a hotel, when Nizar finds out that coaches have been organized to take refugees from the Austrian border to Germany.
Reaching Berlin after 25 days
There is a touching little scene around about this point in the plot where some of the characters realize they will want to appear less foreign as they go West. Even Shahid, the Eritrean mother who has worn a headscarf throughout, takes hers off. The film-maker, herself from multi-cultural background (Egyptian/British), seems to require us to ponder on matters of cultural assimilation – or not.
Eventually, after 25 days on this refugee trail, they arrive in Berlin, Germany, where arrangements for the thousands of refugees is super-efficient, if a bit heartless at first. They endure living conditions in crowded dormitories for some months. Yusra has not given up her dream of representing Syria in the Olympics and continues improvised muscle training. But she knows she must get into the pool again.
Swimming training and competing in Rio
She and her sister daringly go to a local training pool and convince a coach there, Sven, of their Olympic calibre. He accepts them for training, and even finds them accommodation at the swimming club. Sven continues to coach Yusra even though it will be impossible for her to represent Syria at the forthcoming Olympics in Rio da Janeiro. Sara drops out of the swimming programme. Nisra is happy in the Berlin disco scene.
Then Sven breaks the news to Yusra that a Refugee team is to be allowed to compete at Rio, expenses paid. Initially Yusra refuses as she wants to compete on her merits for Syria, not as a team that people feel sorry for. But eventually persuaded by her sister, she agrees. So, the final scenes of this film (140mins length) is of the Olympics. There is indeed some distasteful rebuff by other national swimming champions of the refugee team. They obviously have no idea of the kind of ordeals that such refugees have undergone on their way to this competition.
The film does not reveal where Yusra came in the overall Olympic competition. She is shown winning a heat for butterfly stroke, even while revisualizing the traumas both of the bombing of her training pool in Damascus as well as of her heroic swim in the Aegean. Her sister Saras and Sven her coach are there cheering her on at the pool-side.
Sisters help refugee causes
Then Saras, with a new look of bobbed hair, and cross-shaped earrings (symbolic?), tells her sister that she has decided to leave Germany and return to Lesbos to help other refugees there. There will a sequel to this film following the true story of what happened to her there. Yusra competed once more in the Refugee team in Japan. She is now living, reunited with her Syrian family, in Berlin. Both sisters now assist with publicity for refugee causes.
Those in Kent who do not understand why refugees risk their lives on the Channel should view this film to understand the ordeals that some of them have already suffered.