Filmmaker Sally El Hosaini had already turned down two Working Title scripts when the British production company submitted Jack Thorne’s. The swimmers script to his London agent Matthew Bates at Sayle Screen to read.
Since he made his debut in 2012 my brother the devilThe Hosaini had been mostly focused on his own projects, including a yet-to-be-made feature on cult leader Jim Jones, so his initial reaction to this latest opportunity was, “Oh no, I’ll have to say no again.” “.
As she explains, “I had tunnel vision on my project at the time. Then Matthew said, ‘Look, you really should read it. You don’t want them to think you’re just saying no. So I read the script. It sounds cliché, but when I got to the end, I knew I had to do it.”
The swimmers — the opening gala of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival — tells the true story of Syrian Yusra Mardini, who had trained from childhood to become a professional swimmer, only to have her Olympic ambitions jeopardized when war broke out. civilian in Syria in 2011. Together with her older sister, and also a competitive swimmer, Sara, she joined the crowd of refugees fleeing Syria and finally arrived as asylum seekers in Germany after a dangerous journey.
Producer Ali Jaafar (king of thieves) brought the story to Working Title almost two years before the publication of Yusra Mardini’s memoir in 2018 (Mariposa: From Refugee to Olympian: My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph), and the film is produced by Tim Cole (wild bill), Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and Jaafar. Stephen Daldry, who at one point had been hired to direct, is among the executive producers.
Approaching the project in late 2018, El Hosaini quickly saw that Thorne, a multiple Bafta TV Award nominee and winner of dramas including National Treasure Y the vanished – had avoided the simple “refugee to Olympian” narrative. Instead, “it was also about Sara, and suddenly it became a love story between sisters. The fact that there were two heroes, the obvious hero in Yusra and the unsung hero in Sara, was very inspiring to me.”
The filmmaker, who was born in Wales but grew up in Egypt until the age of 16, felt a personal connection. “On screen, you rarely see young women like these who are modern, bilingual, liberal. Many Arab women are portrayed as victims or too religious. Every Arab city in the world has young women like Yusra and Sara.
“And it was the idea that war turns everything upside down. These women are forced to take their lives into their own hands due to the chaos. Within the film, I saw this incredible emancipation and freedom. It was something I could identify with.”
The Hosaini felt able to push the characters in a way that maybe Thorne felt inhibited from doing. “When you don’t know a culture, you might want to treat it respectfully,” he explains. “I felt like I gave Jack the confidence to make the sisters even a little more unpleasant at times. There was an irreverence that I wanted to give him and a sense of humor.”
Along the way, Thorne invited El Hosaini to receive a joint screenplay credit. “Jack had built such a wonderful structure in the story, I was just decorating the window and roughing it up a little bit,” says the filmmaker. “But it was a real collaboration between us.”
Netflix boarded and greenlit The swimmersbut El Hosaini wouldn’t have a movie unless he found his Mardini sisters, and he turned to Shaheen Baig, who had chosen my brother the devil. The Bafta-nominated casting director worked with casting partners in several countries, initially looking at Syrian citizens, many of whom, like the Mardinis, had fled the conflict.
“What became apparent was that the paperwork situation for them to come and shoot in the countries we needed was difficult,” says El Hosaini, who has filmed in Turkey, Belgium and the UK. “They had various degrees of refugee status and legality and red tape.”
Next, El Hosaini was looking for young women who could speak Arabic fluently, preferably from Levantine countries bordering Syria, and who could also handle scenes in English.
In Paris, the team found Sara Mardini, the film’s rebellious spirit, in the form of Franco-Lebanese actress Manal Issa. They then found out about Issa’s younger sister, Nathalie, who was studying literature and wasn’t sure she wanted to act. She was tempted to go in and screen test alongside Manal. “When I saw them together and their chemistry…it was just fantastic,” says El Hosaini.
The cast also includes James Krishna Floyd, the filmmaker’s real-life partner, who starred in my brother the devil. The couple will soon collaborate on the show. unicornsco-directed from a screenplay by Floyd, financed and produced by Trudie Styler and Celine Rattray’s Maven Screen Media and Philip Herd’s Chromatic Aberration.
El Hosaini calls Netflix “the perfect people” to make The swimmers — for example, understanding your desire to have much of the dialogue in Arabic. “That was something that wasn’t there initially, but I felt like it was very important,” she says.
From the Netflix team, El Hosaini worked with Vice President of International Film David Kosse and Original Film Director Racheline Benveniste. “As a filmmaker, you end up fighting for authenticity most of the time, or I certainly do. And there was not even a fight with them. They understood from the beginning what he was trying to do with [the Arabic language]. Netflix has a global audience and they think globally.”
The swimmers filmed in the UK (London’s Olympic swimming pool represents the equivalent of Rio de Janeiro, where the drama climaxes) and Belgium (the Lites aquatic stage and studios in Brussels), but most of the locations were sourced in Turkey, instead of Syria, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Germany and the beaches of Rio, as well as for Turkey itself.
“When I first joined, we were supposed to go to Morocco, because so much of the Middle East is filmed in Morocco, but that was not the most authentic choice,” says El Hosaini. “As soon as we went to Turkey, we realized that we absolutely could shoot this many countries there. And the teams are fantastic.”
In conversations with cinematographer Christopher Ross (Danny Boyle’s Yesterday), El Hosaini shared an ambition: “I was keeping in mind that the images that people usually see of refugees and in boats are things that we see on television. I wanted to make this as emotional and cinematic an experience as possible, and put the audience in the shoes of the girls, and as a traveler on the journey with them.”
Ross shot with Cooke Xtal Xpress lenses. “These handmade lenses are full of imperfections and are as far removed from television news images as possible,” says El Hosaini.
The road movie nature of the shoot was arduous for cast and crew as they were constantly moving from location to location, and involved 58 days of shooting over three months in late spring/summer 2021. “Chris needed be there with the camera on the journey. , on the boat right next to them, getting hit, standing in the sea. Him walking in the sweltering heat along the train tracks, over the rocky, uneven ground of the wooded hill, being bitten by mosquitoes. He said more than once that this was the hardest movie he had ever shot, and he missed a stone. [6kg] in weigh.”
When it comes to shooting in the Aegean Sea – water tanks were used for night shoots – the film reaches its most intensely dramatic moments. Among the supporting artists on the boat, El Hosaini had included several refugees who had made that same treacherous journey.
“We did all the sea stuff during the day really,” she says. “The level of union that happens, because the sea was choppy. When the actors are throwing up, they really are throwing up. You cannot have a rest when you are in the middle of the sea.
“Having people on that ship that have made the journey just set the tone… This feeling that everyone was very honored and prepared to try to understand and experience what so many people are still going through.”