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‘The Swimmers’ Review: Syrian Drama Mixes Sports, Politics, Wartime Horrors and Happiness

Director Sally El Hosaini follows Syrian refugees who fled that country’s civil war to pursue their athletic careers

AWARDS BEAT

This review originally ran September 8, 2022, in conjunction with the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The last decade has seen a plethora of movies about the crisis in Syria, most of them hard-hitting documentaries tracking the brutal effects of the war and the plight of those who’ve left and those who’ve stayed. At the same time, there’s never been a shortage of inspirational sports films where plucky athletes overcome obstacles to realize their dreams.

But “The Swimmers,” which opened the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, is a rare mixture of the two: It’s an inspirational sports movie about a pair of Syrian swimmers, sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini, who fled from their home in Damascus during the Syrian civil war in 2015 to Europe, where they might have a chance to advance their athletic careers and swim in the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

TIFF has opened with sports movies in the past, though you might be forgiven for forgetting about the festival’s 2010 opener, “Score: A Hockey Musical,” or 2017’s “Borg/McEnroe,” with Shia LaBeouf perhaps typecast as the petulant John McEnroe. 

At any rate, “The Swimmers” is more substantial than either of those films. Directed by Welsh/Egyptian filmmaker Sally El Hosaini (“My Brother the Devil”) and starring real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa, the Netflix film contains more ecstatic, celebratory montages than you’ll ever see in a movie about war and displacement, while at the same time packing more horrors into its two hours than a barrel of sports movies.

It makes for an awkward fit at times, and El Hosaini lays the melodrama on thicker than the nuance, but there’s no denying that the story packs a punch. 

A few other recent films have mixed politics and sports, including last year’s Czech Oscar entry, “Zatopek,” but the contrasts are even more marked in “The Swimmers.” That’s clearly the way the movie is designed, with the early scenes of Yusra and Sara painting their life in Damascus as a whirl of intense swim training with their father, but also intense partying. That day-glo festivity remains even when the timeline flashes forward four years and bombs begin dropping in the distance, while the Mardini sisters dance the night away.

Tiara, the more cautious of the two and the more accomplished swimmer, is somewhat worried; Sara would prefer not to think about it. But eventually, the civil war reaches them when a bomb drops in a pool during one of Yusra’s races, and the family has to consider sending the girls to Germany, where they might have a chance to continue their swimming. 

Accompanied by their cousin (Ahmed Malek), they head to Turkey as tourists, though even the flight attendants on the plane know what’s really happening: An in-flight announcement reminds the passengers that the life jackets are the property of the airline, and those who attempt to take them will be prosecuted. 

The center stretch of “The Swimmers” could be a movie of its own. The sisters endure a nightmarish trip across the sea with 18 refugees in a leaky rubber boat designed for a third that many, followed by a trek across Europe involving long walks and a succession of smugglers, each one more devious than the last. 

The scenes at sea are particularly harrowing, making up an unbroken stretch that alternates between fast, jarring cuts inside the boat and periodic calmer overhead shots to show the tiny craft lost in a vast sea. It’s not easy to follow what’s going on, but that’s part of the point: All is chaos, even after Yusra and Sara jump overboard to lighten the load and help get the boat to the island of Lesbos.

After that stretch, it’s jarring when the movie returns to more typical training montages and repeated scenes of momentary bliss and celebration along the way. The filmmaking tends to overplay everything, so the ecstatic moments are so heightened that it’s hard to reconcile them with the voyage we’ve just seen. (To say the least, a joyous pillow fight during the journey seems a bit incongruous.)

But the juxtaposition of jubilance and misery is the film’s modus operandi, however jarring it may seem. And by the end, Sara gives a rousing speech that ties together the horror and the happiness, and Yusra rises to the occasion. It’s corny as hell, but also undeniably effective. You can’t keep a good inspirational sports movie down, even when it’s carrying the baggage this one is.

For the record: A previous version of this story misspelled Sally El Hosaini’s name.

“The Swimmers” opens in US theaters Nov. 11 prior to its Netflix premiere Nov. 23.