The 2022 Netflix movie centers around the life of two sisters who flee their home in Syria in 2015 together with their older male cousin in the hope of establishing a new life for themselves and their family in Germany. The two young women, Yusra, who is 17, and Sarah, aged 20, are both trained to be competitive swimmers by their father, who had also pursued a swimming career at a younger age. The story follows the protagonists from their childhood home in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, to their second home in the capital’s centre after the siege of Darayya and Muadamiyat in 2012, all the way through Turkey, Greece and what has been called the “Balkan route”. It ends with them arriving safely in Berlin, and attending the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, where Yusra has earned a place in the swim team of the then-newly founded “Refugee Team”.
Sarah and Yusra have not only gained international media attention for their achievements in the athletic and humanitarian fields respectively, but have also become known for the widely publicized story of a selfless act of rescue during their passing of the Aegean Sea. The night of their crossing, the two sisters voluntarily jumped off their dinghy and swam almost the entire distance between Ayvalik, Turkey, and Lesvos, Greece, so that the remaining refugees could safely remain on the damaged boat, which would have otherwise been at risk of sinking.
The very first scenes of the movie depict a happy, big family, celebrating Yusra’s birthday in their beautiful, middle-class suburban home, after opening with a shot of the two sisters playing in a public pool presumably after having attended swim practice. Through a glimpse into these relatively carefree times, it is revealed that the father of the two main characters (and of a third, much younger girl, named Shaed) plays a pivotal role in their everyday lives. He is coaching them to be professional swimmers, and the viewer is introduced to him while he makes a toast to his future Olympic winning-daughters, seeming the proudest for any achievements that have to do with the sport.
This motif will continue throughout the movie, as Yusra’s and Sarah’s father is usually either in the focus during scenes depicting competitive swimming or mentioned in the same sentence with Yusra’s ambition to join the Olympics later on, while Sarah increasingly struggles to identify with and focus on this goal. Eerily, the first few minutes include a scene in which Sarah’s mother finds her oldest daughter sitting in a corner by herself while the family and guests are dancing in the living room, and annoyedly shuts Sarah’s laptop to urge her and join the festivities, after which the camera follows the joyous singing and dancing of the birthday party. However, the viewer cannot forget about the videos Sarah was watching before her mother interrupted – showing the ongoing protests erupting across Syria demanding the reign of then-President Bashar al-Assad to come to an end – as well as Sarah’s words, directed at her mother, “This is reality, mama. What happened in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, is happening here.” Even more unsettling is her mothers firm response, “And I’ve told you nothing like that can happen in Syria.”
While during these first few minutes of the movie show Sarah with a mostly frowned or concerned expression in contrast to her family, who is in a celebratory mood, this changes in the next scenes: Now set in 2015, we see Sarah laughing loudly, shouting, and dancing with her younger sister at a late-night roof-top party in central Damascus, together their older cousin Nizar, who is the DJ, and other young people. The two engage in a spontaneous choreography to David Guetta’s song “Titanium”, attracting their friends’ attention through their showy moves and singing. Hala, a girl Yusra’s age films them on her smartphone, and with their trendy outfits and youthful energy this could almost be a scene set in any country familiar to most viewers – were it not for the explosions in the backdrop, lighting up the night sky in deep red and orange, a high contrast to the cool blue lightning of the party setting in the front.
Naturally, this changes the course of the movie. After this scene, we see the two young sisters drunkenly stumble through the streets of their new, run-down neighbourhood filled with armed soldiers and creepy old men, after having continued their night at a local shisha-café where they found out on Facebook that a friend died in a bombing.
“All the more reason to party”, Sarah tells Yusra in an aggressive tone, when she proposes to go home. The two of them have built up tension between them during the night, with Sarah’s laughter and seemingly goofy mood uncovering something more sinister underneath – a sense of having given up in the face of continuous fear, a sense of having nothing else to lose, a sense of loss of purpose, maybe. This is reflected in her taunting response to Yusra, who insists she needs to go home and sleep to attend practice the next morning, “if I want to make the Olympics”. “The Olympics?”, Sarah laughs, “swimming for who? There is no country left anymore!”
This giggly, nothing-left-to-lose attitude is soon gone, however, as Sarah is shown to raise an issue at her family’s dinner table soon after: the idea of fleeing, inspired by Yusra’s friend Hala’s recent pictures of a new life in Germany, posted on social media. But there’s a catch. The family is most likely to succeed in receiving a long-term residence permit in Germany through “family reunification”, a process only refugees under the age of 18 are able to apply for. Once Sarah’s parents realize that she is proposing that her and Yusra take on the journey with their cousin Nizar, they are resolutely against it. They know how dangerous it is, they know how deadly – “and if you arrive, what will you be?”, asks their father at their dinner table which has plunged into darkness because of a sudden power outage, “Refugees?”
This powerful quote, together with a sarcastic comment made earlier by Sarah that European countries are known for generously handing out visas to Syrians, is one of the moments that make “The Swimmers” stand out, its realistic, human, and three-dimensional approach to people whose stories are so often shown in exploitative ways in media. Indeed, “The Swimmers” depiction of violence, which is mostly of sexual nature, is not gratuitous. No lingering shots that stayed a moment too long on the female actresses’ bodies or the expression of horror on their faces. Instead, the camera invites the viewer to empathize with the sisters, creating moments of anxiety or panic that are just long enough to remind them of these young women’s particular vulnerability, based on their gender, age, and psychological turmoil. Most importantly however, it doesn’t focus on their victimization. When soldiers of the Syrian armed forces harass Sarah in a Damascus bus, she confronts them verbally. When a middle-aged man who is part of a smuggling network preys on Yusra and attempts to rape her in an abandoned garage in Hungary, Yusra not only fights back fiercely, but is joined by her sister, who attacks the perpetrator and incapacitates him. In many aspects, “The Swimmers” gives room to the young women’s anger much more than to their pain.
Naturally, the most emotionally impactful scene is the night of their brave and selfless act of jumping off the dinghy boat which was provided to them and a group of refugees by a smuggler in Turkey, and which is about to sink because of its small size and possibly previous damage. However, the girls’ admirable sense of community and justice is shown before the disastrous night in the open scene, when the group of refugees is still driving the dinghy out of the deserted bay in Ayvalik. Having noticed the immense weight the dinghy carries, Sarah asks her companions to raise their hand if they know how to swim and proceeds to tell them that everyone who has not raised their hands in response is now their responsibility. When a young Eritrean woman, who is carrying her young infant throughout their crossing to Europe, does not raise her hand, Yusra assures her that she will be responsible for both her and her child. Finally, when the group of refugees arrives in Lesvos, the camera takes a wide angle during their walk from the shore into a nearby village, showing huge piles of life jackets in bright neon colors shattered across the beach, reminding the viewer that this is only one of countless stories of flight that is being told in this biopic. Further, it is a great juxtaposition to a scene of the sisters earlier in Turkey, where they arrive at a market full with people on the move, and stare with a puzzled laugh at a storage front with mannequin wearing yellow and orange life jackets, moments before Nizar informs them that he has been told it is quicker and less expensive to cross the sea than to take the land route towards Bulgaria.
Generally, the movie provides a balance of emotional scenes. From sisterly disputes to
moments of fun and relative carelessness among Yusra, Sarah, and Nizar, to depictions of racism, the physical challenge of being on the move for weeks, and bureaucratic difficulties. The latter is quite a devastating scene, in which a German civil servant in a dimly lit office in Berlin informs Sarah that family reunification will probably not be possible, given that her sister will turn 18 before having completed the necessary paperwork to allow their parents to move.
The Mardinis arrive in Germany
Once the three Mardinis have arrived in Berlin, the viewer understands that the sisters now face a great divide: While Yusra has not given up on her dream of swimming for the Olympics, Sarah has lost interest in the sport and has shifted her attention completely to the structural challenges the refugee community faces. This conflict becomes the subtle focus of the movie’s final part. When Yusra is provided with the opportunity to join the “Refugee Team'' by her German trainer Sven, she is initially disappointed, having always wanted to swim for her country, Syria. At the same time, Sarah is increasingly convinced that she feels a calling back to Lesvos, and has been in correspondence with a non-profit humanitarian organization based on the island.
Hence, this is arguably the most pivotal point of the movie, the complex dealing with
inequality and injustice by different members of marginalized communities. However, it remains greatly underdeveloped, leaving Sarah’s more politically-focused and community-based trajectory largely out of its last quarter. Meanwhile, Yusra's admission to the Rio Olympics is followed in what can almost be called an inspirational sports movie that follows individual athletes overcoming adversity and reaching success despite the immense challenges posed by their environment. Sarah’s own struggle with focussing on individual success rather than using their new-found privileges as “legal” residents of the EU to help others less fortunate is merely portrayed in the context of the 2016 Olympics themselves. It is she who insists that her sister’s representation of the refugee community as a whole will prove important in defying and rejecting the shame around the term and its negative stereotypes.
Through its depiction of Sarah’s and Yusra’s stories, which are exceptional in themselves and hence make a compelling story either way, this movie rather easily captures the viewer’s interest. However, there have been many critical voices in the aftermath of “The Swimmers”’ release, and it is important to incorporate them when discussing the Netflix production.
Notably, with the exception of director Sally el Hosaini and co-producer Ali Jafaar, the producers and authors of the movie are exclusively white British and American men, who reportedly had little interest in leaving room for input from the young, Middle Eastern members of their cast. Manal Issa, herself of French-Lebanese heritage, further criticized the production company for not hiring Syrian actors to portray people of Syrian origin - that is, with the exception of the marginal role of the girls’ mother, who was played by Kinda Alloush. This was reflected in the authenticity of accents in the rather few parts of dialogue that are spoken in Arabic; another criticism “The Swimmers” rightfully receives. Additionally, many found issues with the lack of focus placed on the violent conflict that drove the Mardinis to flee in the first place and the excessive showtime that was instead given to Yusra’s one-of-a-kind and unrepresentative road to success. In short, many members of the Middle Eastern diaspora struggle with the movie’s sensationalization of individual experience instead of raising much-needed awareness to more broadly relatable stories of flight-migration. For more insight into Manal Issa’s specifically production-related reproval, we suggest reading the “Middle East Eye”’s review of “The Swimmers”.
The Final Verdict
While viewing the film, we found ourselves disappointed in some other aspects, as well: First, we would have liked to see a bit more of Nizar’s arrival and his every-day life in Berlin. The viewer gets a glimpse of his declining mental state in a scene where he expresses exhaustion about his living conditions, but it is rather short and un-insightful.
Being a young man from Syria and hence belonging to a group that is often particularly marginalized, criminalized, and least empathized with by the broad public, a better understanding of his problems would have been valuable. Second, as other critics have pointed out, Sarah’s difficult decision to return to her first place of arrival in the EU is also not analyzed deeply enough. For instance, the flashbacks of the night of their crossing the Aegean Sea are shown to be a psychological symptom for Yusra, but not for Sarah, who seems to take on a more secondary role in the last quarter of the movie. Not to mention that her ongoing struggles with the Greek justice system are merely an afterthought in “The Swimmers” - mentioned only briefly in text before the end credits roll.
Yet, we also valued the portrayal of the Mardinis’ life before their journey, and found it to very subtly remind viewers the normality of many peoples’ lives who are stricken by war and tragedy, and become branded as the “other” by more fortunate groups. Moreover, we enjoyed the girls’ relatability and the refusal to dwell on specifically female pain or confront them unnecessarily with Orientalist and male-gazey tropes of femininity.
And while we agree that the ending might seem displaced, rushed, and too “Disney-like”, this movie is still worth a watch, as it is easily available on Netflix and digestible for wide audiences. After all, as we are reminded by Manal Issa and Joseph Fahim, the author behind the “Middle East Eye”s review, there are already plenty of similar and even less three-dimensional Hollywood depictions of “typical refugee stories” out there, and this one may divert from many harmful tropes just enough to make your time worthwhile.