TIFF: This true story of Syrian sisters swimming their way out of a war-torn world isn’t as inspiring on screen as I’d like.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Netflix’s Syrian immigrant drama “The Swimmers” is a long-running series that tries extra hard — from a cloying score to constant reminders that its leads are, you know, swimmers. To try to make you feel alright , or at least feel something. The problem is that the audience isn’t swayed by the same enthusiasm that director Sally El Hosaini sets out to achieve, in part through Sia’s heated use of pop anthems. Who knew radio hits like “Titanium” and “Unstoppable” could serve as powerful theme songs for a drama about a pair of Syrian sisters fleeing their war-torn homeland in search of a better life in Europe?
“The Swimmers,” written by El Hosaini and Jack Thorne, is based on the true story of the Mardini sisters, anointed by the Olympics, who left battle-torn Damascus in 2015 by ship for Germany, where there is hope. things could be better. Centering on Sara and Yusra, who share a deep bond but also rudimentary competitiveness, as established in early shots of the pair diving and embracing underwater in a public swimming pool, the film means well. Unfortunately, the script does little to flesh out who these people are beyond their need to leave a broken world. Actresses Nathalie Issa (playing Yusra) and Manal Issa (playing Sara) put their best foot forward in the material, which lacks emotional punch. As urgent and necessary as its story is, it also feels all too familiar in cinematic terms.
Sara and Yusra are exceptional swimmers, raised by their disciplined father (Ali Suliman), who pushes them to outshine their peers and often each other. But the world around them is being bombarded by civil war as government protests incite violence in Damascus, so the family decides it’s best for the sisters to leave and hopefully make a better life for themselves. Europe. The process is exhausting, starting with a flight to Istanbul which then leads to a smuggling operation by water and land. Sara and Yusra, along with their cousin Nizar (Ahmed Malek) and a group of other refugees seeking asylum elsewhere, take a boat across the Mediterranean Sea. Things fall apart along the way, as water fills the raft and the raging waves of the sea challenge their journey. El Hosaini’s direction is cacophonous in these moments, which are not as visceral as they should be.
“The Swimmers” tells a recognizably human and moving story of migrants making their way to better times, but the beats become so recognizable that knowing this is a Netflix movie, you only wish you could fast-forward through it. the rhythms of the plot that exist. to fulfill themselves. After terrifying encounters, natural disasters, and a sudden sexual assault that comes out of nowhere and goes unexamined, Sara and Yusra finally arrive in Berlin. It is there that she takes them under the wing of swimming coach Sven (Matthias Schweighöfer), who sees potential in Yusra even as Sara begins to abandon her own career as a swimmer. Yusra and Sven prepare for the Olympic Games, a lifelong dream of the Madrinis. But this is again when the movie starts to slide back into predictability. When Sven, emboldened by Yusra’s strengthened determination after the long trip to Germany, says, “We have a lot of work to do,” you know what’s coming. Cue the training montage set with upbeat and uplifting music.
There are some amazing visuals in the film, from Sara and Yusra projected under sunlight filtering through a trellis tent somewhere in the last limbo of their journey, their patterns pasting crow’s-foot shapes onto their bodies. , even Sara (the “powerhouse” of the family). , as her father calls her) looking at a missile that fell into the pool, underwater, during a Syrian airstrike. When Sara, Yusra and their companions finally arrive in Serbia, scores of life jackets line the beach. It’s a powerful image, but the film seems unwilling to address the horrific realities of the Syrian refugee crisis beyond these visual metaphors.
Yusra and Sara’s relationship is clearly complex, but the actors, while compelling, can’t get to the bottom of who they are beyond their athletic ambitions. There is a curious and poignant exchange where they wonder why they took up swimming in the first place, beyond parental mandate, or if they even enjoy it. It is left unexplored. By the time Sara arrives at the 2016 Olympics, after a fight and then reconciliation with Yusra, built on a mountain of corny platitudes, it’s hard to care when you start to see the inevitable coming. In the climactic scene, as Yusra does graceful butterfly movements in an Olympic relay race, there is no suspense. As a viewer, you know that she’s obviously going to win the race and that we’re following the narrative moves.
“The Swimmers” gets too caught up in the waves of telling a nice story about our inner strength, but in the end the audience can’t share the excitement. There’s a sense that the filmmakers are rooting for these two strong-willed women, sure, but do we? In a scene where Sara decides to cut her long curly hair, you can almost hear the movie saying, “Come on, girl.” But for what purposes? No amount of Sia’s plethora of ballads can make us support a lame story.
“The Swimmers” had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released in select theaters and on Netflix on November 23.