Swimming for refuge

Dave Kellaway reviews The Swimmers (2022) directed by Sally El Hosaini, and currently available on Netflix.


If you want a Xmas alternative to watching Love Actually or A Wonderful Life for the nth
time, then this is the film for you. It is a film that brutally brings home the reality of
refugees’ struggles to find asylum in a West that builds walls and a hostile environment
against them. It is a film that provides a vivid counter-narrative to the Tory government’s
inhumane Rwanda deal, its labelling of all Albanians as illegal, and to Home Secretary
Cruella Braverman, who called the small boats’ desperate journeys an “invasion.”

The Swimmers tells the true story of sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini who fled their home
country of Syria in 2015, when their house was destroyed during the civil war. They
journeyed to Lebanon and then on to Turkey where they arranged to be smuggled into
Greece on a dinghy. The refugees were in the middle of the Aegean Sea when the engine
of the overcrowded dinghy cut out, and the pair, plus two others who could swim, were
responsible for saving the lives of those on board. Just a year after their harrowing
experience Yusra competed in two swimming events at the Rio Olympics as part of the
Refugee Olympic team.

Director Sally El Hosaini co-wrote the script with Jack Thorne, and its critique of Fortress
Europe’s anti-migrant policy is embedded in a fast-paced story framed with the themes
of family—of parenting, sibling love and rivalry, and the role of sport. People smugglers
are accurately portrayed as utter thugs. Above all they are shown as business people
taking advantage of a market created by governments that refuse to provide humane
and legal ways for people to claim asylum or find work, allowing them to live decently.
Migrants survive the hell of these journeys in part through human solidarity. Food is
shared, people look out for one another and strong swimmers lighten the load of a
sinking rubber boat.

The performance is enhanced by the roles of the two sisters being played by real-life
sisters, Manal Issa and Natalie Issa. You sense they have been in these kind of situations
where you are so close you share everything but at other times you hate each other for
some stupid action. The father as a professional swimming coach wants them both to be
champions. Maybe he is compensating for not quite making it himself. One sister is upset as the father appears to praise the commitment of the other. Although the story takes you through tough experiences and does not hide the needless loss of human life, it is never without hope and exalts the positive experience of struggling and surviving together.

The film does show the differentiated response to the issue in Fortress Europe. Merkel’s
Germany did welcome a million refugees from Syria, unlike Orban’s Hungary. Germany may not be a workers’ paradise, and it today supports barriers further east. However, the humanitarian response depicted in the film exposes the fallacy of all racist arguments about migrants and refugees stealing resources from native indigenous workers or the notion that European countries are already overburdened.

Getting across to the viewer what it is really like in these boats and lorries was also helped
by refugees and migrants performing in the film. Even the vomiting, fainting and discomfort
in some scenes were not performed. The feel-good aspects of the film are further moderated by bringing the viewer up to date with what the sisters are both doing now. The Olympian
sister continues to be involved in raising awareness of the situation in Syria and with migrants.
She stated:

“After the Olympics, I realised that it’s not just my story anymore. I realised that my responsibility is to raise awareness and bring hope to millions of refugees around the world
and speak for all of those who do not have a voice.

At the same time, the other sister, Sara Mardini, who did not continue her swimming career
to the Olympics, went back to Lesbos to help the refugees. In 2018, she was held for 100 days in pre-trial detention for “helping people smugglers” and “spying.” She was subsequently released on bail but was charged in 2021 with helping people smugglers and is facing a
possible sentence of 25 years. The trial finally started a few weeks ago. Al Jazeera reported
that she, along with 24 others:

“faces up to eight years in prison for state-secret espionage and disclosure and 25 years in jail for charges including smuggling and money laundering.

Amnesty International has called the accusations “unfair and baseless” Watch Sara on video here:

The Amnesty petition is here.

Unfortunately, the film had a very limited release in cinemas here but now it is available on
Netflix which is accessible to millions of people. Get the word out there about this positive,
critical film.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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