After Netflix told the story of the Mardini sisters Sara and Yusra on their escape in 2022, it is now followed by a documentary focusing on the older sister Sara and her fight for justice. It is about a young woman between worlds, searching for herself and her will to fight against a system that wants to imprison her.
Life After Prison, But Life Before Trial
In Long Distance Swimmer: Sara Mardini film director Charly Wai Feldman follows Sara Mardini over the course of a four year-period. Filming begins with Sara’s release on bail from the high security prison facilities of Korydallos in Greece. Mardini had previously been arrested by Greek authorities on flimsy accusations of various serious criminal offenses, such as people smuggling and espionage, while volunteering with a first response team on the eastern Mediterranean island of Lesvos in 2018. Feldman’s movie is an exploration of the aftermath of Sara’s three-month long imprisonment, as well as the effects of the continuously delayed court trial on the young woman’s life.
The documentary is voiced over by Mardini herself. This invites viewers into her thoughts and feelings while following her into sometimes very personal settings, such as her bedroom or family dinner table. We watch Sara spend time with her friend Claudia, her co-defendant Sean Binder, and of course, her younger sister Yusra Mardini. We also watch Sara feel the immense frustration with the injustices she faces, when joining Zoom calls with her legal team, and trying to escape her anxiety by traveling, dancing and listening to music. Then again, we see her glancing in the direction of the camera in a full face of stage makeup before appearing on a talk show, being photographed at events, or making a speech at a demonstration. The Sara we get to see is a three-dimensional human being, not just as a humanitarian activist, or refugee, or young woman living in Berlin, or the victim of a political agenda - but someone who speaks to each viewer on multiple levels. By the end of the movie, one thing is for sure: barely a viewer will not have been charmed and moved by her. As Feldman herself pointedly remarked: “Sara has a very strong personality, which sweeps you away like a magnet. She has this unbelievable strength, and at the same time, this vulnerability.”
“Going With The Flow” As A Long Distance Swimmer
In 2022, Netflix released The Swimmers, a movie depicting the story of the two Mardini sisters from the beginning of the armed conflict in Syria in 2011, to the boat wreck they survived on their journey to Europe, their arrival in Greece, and their arduous journey on the so-called “Balkan route” to Germany. The movie ends with Yusra’s participation in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic games as part of the newly established Refugee Olympic Team. In our review of The Swimmers, we highlighted that the movie did not focus its attention on Sara’s political and humanitarian efforts, let alone show her being victimized by a system that increasingly criminalizes help and rescue work at the external borders of the EU. Long Distance Swimmer fills this void, and seems to place the narrative almost completely in Sara’s hands, never letting room for viewers to fear that they are watching an exploitative piece.
This time, Sara seems to have the freedom to express in her own words how her struggles with PTSD, depression, and anxiety affect her. Moreover, she openly grapples with her overall role in the world of humanitarianism and political activism, even questioning the extent to which her current path in life has been the result of her own goals, wishes and aspirations, or whether she simply “went with the flow”. As she excitedly talks about dancing, partying, techno music, and by expressing the wish to be a “normal student”, the audience is captivated by the side of her that is not a prominent part of her public life. On the other hand, it also becomes clear that her sense of self-fulfillment and joy truly lies on the shores of the Aegean, as Sara speaks about longing for a return back on the sea and to rescue work.
The film succeeds in making the audience fully understand that these are merely two facets of the same person, and that Sara is not so much conflicted as she is a young woman in her twenties, exploring her passions and searching for an escape from her struggles. At the same time, she moves in a dynamic between her as a media person, her as an activist and her as a young person in Berlin.
There are moments in the film when she openly admits that she may not meet the expectations she sees in people's faces, that she may not achieve great deeds, but that she may simply live a life outside of the spotlight. In this way, she also corresponds to the zeitgeist, in which young people are increasingly confronted with a pressure of expectations that they see themselves helpless and unable to fulfill. Mardini meets this stoically, is aware of this challenge and vocalizes it openly without seeming desperate. In the process, one forgets that she has already achieved something that hardly anyone from her generation can claim: not only surviving the dangerous flight to Greece, but also playing a decisive role in ensuring that many others did not drown and continuously using her voice in the face of fear and prosecution. In short, Feldman’s direction is able to make us feel like we are watching a fully-formed human being on the screen in front of us.
It’s About More Than Just One Case
Nevertheless, by the end of the movie it has also become clear that Sara is drained, and that she feels trapped by the state of incapacity the judicial process has forced her into. She tells viewers that her success as a humanitarian activist cannot and should not be measured by the number of stages she appears on. It is evident that she has become tired of feeling like she can only talk and not act, or and that in the meantime no one else is taking action either. As her co-defendant Sean Binder repeatedly emphasizes, the accusations and court proceedings against them and many others have already successfully instilled fear among potential rescue workers, leading to less engagement on the Greek islands.
It is also Sean who provides the filmmakers with the most powerful quote while he and Sara are accompanied by Feldman at a photoshoot for an Amnesty International campaign. And though this message should be considered self-evident and be universally accepted, Sean poignantly explains that there are certain political forces who want to make the citizens of the EU believe otherwise. He says:
“It doesn’t matter if you’re on the right or the left, no one should risk drowning. Even if you don’t end up granting asylum, the risk of drowning should never be calculated, should never be used to stop migration.”