The Mardini sisters have a real-life story so rare, it’s unsurprising director Sally El Hosaini has made a film about them. A year after the Syrian civil war breaks out, Yusra (Nathalie Issa) competes in the swimming world championships — though this isn’t shown — while her home in the Daraya area of Damascus becomes increasingly dangerous. One day, a bomb lands in the pool while Yusra trains but mercifully remains unexploded; this incident is depicted, vividly, in El Hosaini’s dramatic biopic.
Alongside sister Sara (Manal Issa), Yusra has been coached by father Ezzat (Ali Suliman), who hopes the pair will become Olympic-level athletes. By 2015, the civil war has encroached into their lives to such an extent that moving to Europe is the only viable option. After much cajoling, Ezzat agrees to the teenage sisters making the perilous trip to Berlin with their aspiring-DJ cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malik).
El Hosaini's deep, humanist care remains and the two central performances are strong.
On a dangerously overloaded dinghy heading to the Greek island of Lesbos, the sisters leap overboard and swim alongside to avoid catastrophe. The film’s most thrilling sequence, it dexterously juxtaposes the sacrificial determination needed to attain sporting greatness with the struggle to reach safety in wartime.
Back on land, a nervous energy is maintained as the steadfast sisters cross Europe in the back of lorries and over barbed-wire border fences. Reaching Germany, the pair are housed in a busy, noisy refugee centre while hopes to bring remaining family over are dashed by immigration rules. There’s a heart-breaking sense of verisimilitude. Yusra sticks at swimming, eventually competing for the Refugee Olympic Team at Tokyo 2016, while Sara undertakes humanitarian work.
With previous feature My Brother The Devil (2014), El Hosaini offered a vital look at criminal troubles facing two brothers of Egyptian descent in east London. The Swimmers is a different proposition, but her deep, humanist care remains and the two central performances are strong. Some harrowing true details, such as Ezzat’s torture at the hands of the paramilitaries, have been omitted, but it’s a fascinating tale, if baggy at 133 minutes.