Yusra Mardini & Sally El Hosaini Tell the True Story

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese talks The Swimmers director Sally El Hosaini and the subject of the film Yusra Mardini about the importance of telling this true story through Netflix. The film was directed and co-written by Sally El Hosaini and co-written by Jack Thorne. The movie is currently streaming on Netflix.

“Based on a true story, The Swimmers follows the journey from war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics,” reads the film’s synopsis. “Two young sisters embark on a harrowing journey as refugees, putting their hearts and champion swimming skills to heroic use.”


Tyler Treese: Sally, this is an amazing true story and one that you don’t need to exaggerate anything to make it a great film. Can you talk about how these real-life events resonated with you and made you want to write and direct this movie?

Sally El Hosaini: Absolutely. Thank you! When I first heard about Yusra and Sara’s story, Working Title contacted me about a screenplay. I know Yusra’s story, but I don’t know Sara’s. When I discovered that it was not only about a hero, but also an unknown hero in Sara — two heroes — I was more inspired to tell this story, but mostly because Yusra and Sara are the type of modern, young, liberal Arabs. women who are rarely seen in our theaters or have movies made about them. I love that it is, on one level, a sports movie. I want the inspiring sports movie to exist for young Arab women. So I really started making movies that I wanted to watch at the age of 13 or 14 that inspired me. That was my ambition, to break the stereotypes, really, of what a refugee is and what these young women are.

Yusra, the two lead actresses in the film are two Lebanese sisters. How did you see your own family bond portrayed so well and have such an impact on these two brothers?

Yusra Mardini: It was great just watching the movie and seeing how well they did. The chemistry is amazing, obviously. It’s so important to have two brothers play two brothers, you know? Unbelievable. Watching the scene where the three girls chase the bird … it was beautiful. It just reminds me of my sisters sleeping in the same room. But yeah, they did a good job, and I really enjoyed watching it.

Sally, the swimming scenes in the whole film look great. What was the biggest challenge in making sure it looked good?

Sally El Hosaini: Nathalie [Issa] and Manal [Issa], who played Yusra and Sarah, couldn’t swim when they were cast, so we had to teach them how to swim. They really put themselves through such a determination, which I think helps make the characters accessible as well. There are many technical challenges, but we also have Covid to contend with when we make this movie and we are filming on the road. Many of these are road movies. You’re only in one location for a day and then you move on.

It was logistically and technically challenging on many levels, but in the end we had a very passionate team that was very committed to the project, which was also by design. So there are a lot of refugees working in the movie. We cast a lot of refugees in the movie. On the boat, when it was about to cross the Aegean Sea, those supporting artists … many traveled themselves and chose to be part of the movie, wanting to represent it in a real and authentic way. So we got through.

Yusra, I think it’s great that it’s on Netflix because your story has had an impact and it’s had a huge reach. What does it mean to you that millions will be able to stream it on day one?

Yusra Mardini: Oh … that sounds crazy to me! When we decided to share the story, it was meant to be. We want millions of people to understand that refugees are normal people, that refugees still go through terrible journeys to reach safety. I want people to understand that they can help. I want people to understand that in the end, I’m just an ordinary girl who has to go through everything, and I’m not the only one. There are millions who have gone through similar stories. I’m very lucky to have the movie. So all in all, it’s a great honor for me. I watch Netflix every day or every other day. Having my own movie with my sister on Netflix is ​​a huge achievement for me.

Sally El Hosaini: It is also important to mention that as inspiring as Yusra and Sara’s story is and as unique as it is, this is the 1% story. When making the movie, we thought a lot about that and that we wanted to represent the 99% as well. We did that through the cousin, Nizar, and through some of the shots where you step back and feel the context of the situation. I really want an audience to feel that they are more than the news images they may have seen. All the creative decisions made are to put the audience in the shoes of Yusra and Sara on the journey with them.

But there are times when we want to come out and give the context that it’s still going on every day. Even when we were making the movie, we shot some of those dinghy scenes in the Agean Sea in the real place where the dinghies cross. When we [filming in] those areas, we saw ships crossing, we saw Coast Guard ships chasing them. It is a condition that is alive and still going on. I hope this opens people’s eyes to that.

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