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Aspirational story during refugee crisis or opportunism? – Beyond Bollywood

Sally El Hosaini’s film on Olympic medalist Yusra Mardini is beyond a sporting dream and is likely to evoke mixed views over the Syrian refugee crisis, illegal, dangerous migration to greener pastures.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️💫 (2.5 / 5)

Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa in The Swimmers [2022]

By Mayur Lookhar

Your reviewer recently stumbled upon an international film recommended by Netflix. Titled The Swimmers, it ought to be a sports film. However, sport is a part of the English, Arabic film. Penned and directed by Welsh-Egyptian filmmaker Sally El Hosaini, The Swimmers [2022] is based on Olympic medalist Yusra Mardini and her sister Sarah’s journey that began with the Syrian refugee crisis.

We recently came across a social media post that condemned the world, media for debating at length the Titan submersible tragedy where five privileged people lost their lives. There can’t be any distinction between tragedies, but very little was covered on a fishing trawler that capsized in the Greek waters. It was carrying over 700 people, mainly Syrian refugees who risked their lives to reach the safer European shores. There were just 104 survivors.   

We couldn’t have watched The Swimmers at a more appropriate time. Siblings Yusra and Sarah had made headlines in 2015 after they chose to get off their dinghy and helped other fellow refugees reach the Greek waters safely. The trained swimmers swam for three hours in the Aegean Sea and steered the dinghy to safety. Young Yusra was 16-17 then, while Sarah was 20. Phew, no Michael Phelps or Ian Thorpe can match that Houdini-effort.

The mere sight of the young siblings getting off the dinghy in the middle of the sea gave that sinking feeling to the viewer. We thought that is going to be an agonizing survival tale. Many filmmakers could have weaved a feature around this Houdini-act alone. However, destiny had other plans for Yusra and Sarah.

In a rare occurrence, director El Hosaini picked real-life sisters Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa to play Yusra and Sarah, respectively.  The natural bonhomie worked to El Hosaini’s advantage as just like Yusra and Sarah, Nathalie, Manal exhibit their characters in crisis. Largely shot in English, Nathalie and Manal communicate in their Levantine Arabic-accented English.  Well, if it is a British production then the primary language ought to be English. Yusra, Sarah’s parents speak in Arabic.

Where did Yusra and Sarah gain this immense strength from? The answer lies in the liberal upbringing where the father always wanted his three daughters to be raised in a free environment. The former swimmer hoped to live the Olympic dream through his daughters. Both are fierce but Yusra stands out for her unabashed attitude. Imagine, you are questioning the very person who you owe a great debt? Yusra is all heart, and it is evident in the intense performance by Nathalie.

Sarah is equally brave but the cooler sibling, who isn’t afraid to enjoy all flavours of life. Manal Issa is equally impressive as Sarah.

The long Civil War has left millions of Syrians undertaking dangerous trips just to escape their war-torn land and find refugee in liberal European countries. Sitting far away in India, and having never experienced such crisis, this reviewer can’t really comprehend on the situation.  Bodies floating, including children on European shores have given us some sense of the magnitude of the crisis.  Phew, one would be inhuman if you don’t open the doors to refugees. But on the other hand, closer home, the Rohingya refugee crisis has thrown up different views in Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. The ethnic clashes in France, Sweden especially involving migrants [legal/illegal] has perhaps led to polarization in these Western states.

In the context of the Syrian crisis, a certain empathy is natural. However, illegal migration has long been tinged with opportunism. What do we make of the refugee crisis in El Hosaini’s film?

There is a sense of empathy when Yusra, Sarah, other asylum seekers hit the road. One is gripped by fear when the poor dinghy threatens to sink in the middle of the sea, and take the 20 odd refugees with it. But once they survive and reach refugee hangars in German cities, the crisis story then turns into an aspirational one as Yusra eventually agrees to reignite her Olympic dream. The German hangar looks plush in comparison to the humble, impoverished refugee camps in troubled zones in Asia, Africa. 

The Swimmers [2023] sheds light on the corruption involved in the illegal immigration. But it also begs an important question? If these dangerous illegal migration trips come at a cost, then is it largely undertaken by those who can afford it? Ten thousand dollars, 2000 Euros. The kind of transactional conversation that we hear in the film suggest that most of El Hosaini’s refugees are a privileged lot. If you find an Afghan guy in this group, then you begin to question individual backgrounds/privileges?

It started from survival, but once conversation veers to the best DJ, clubhouses in Berlin, the empathy factor goes out of the window. Inadvertently, The Swimmers also raises the issue of who is the genuine refugee? It’s also buzzed that citizens from afflicted countries exploit soft migration, asylum seeking policies in search of greener pastures in Western lands.  Tragedy also comes with its opportunism. That is a cruel reality.

If rules, regulation are to be totally ignored under the garb of refugee crisis, then why do nations have borders? One is empathetic to the displaced millions of Syrian, other refugees. Young Yusra took refuge but she’s repaid that gratitude. Sarah found a new purpose in life but her humanitarian efforts to aid illegal migration has landed her in choppy waters.

The refugee crisis is a grim reality that needs to be discussed at a global level. That we still see trawlers sinking with hundreds onboard is testimony to the fact that how powerless are the world superpowers in tackling such crisis. Or maybe the world doesn’t care enough. Do mourn the Tital submersible tragedy, but share a tear for the many drowned refugees too.

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