InfoMigrants spoke with the film's director Sally El Hosaini about how war upturns people's lives and why Yusra and Sarah Mardini's story is far from over.
The sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini fled Syria as refugees in 2015. While crossing the Aegean Sea, their dinghy's engine broke. Along with two others who could swim, they saved the lives of those on board by swimming alongside the dinghy. Their story has been made into a film on Netflix called “The Swimmers”. In another development to their story, the movie's release overlapped with Sarah Mardini's trial in Greece along with two dozen other aid workers for alleged human trafficking, money laundering and fraud. The charges she faces shine a light on the hard line some European countries are taking over migration.
What is it about Sarah and Yusra Mardini’s story that inspired you to make a movie?
It was the fact that they were ordinary girls who did something extraordinary. They complement each other because they have two very different personalities and they reminded me of my friends and I, growing up in Egypt. The story also contained the themes of heroism and refugees that inspired me. I knew I had found subject matter for a film that I had never seen anywhere else, which is important for any creative production that is going to take years of hard work to realise.
The beginning of “The Swimmers” shows Syria’s descent into war and the sisters trying to lead normal lives until it is not possible anymore. How difficult was it to recreate the ambiance and the atmosphere the civil uprising in Syria between the years 2011-2014?
Knowing what we didn’t know, I was keen to get Syrians working in production. Hassan Akkad, a Syrian refugee, was an associate producer. From the very beginning, I asked him to tell us if he saw and heard anything that didn’t feel Syrian, whether it was the costumes of the soldiers in Damas or the props on set. We tried to cast mostly Syrian actors but we had to open up the search when red-tape prevented them from getting visas to work in the United Kingdom and Germany. We chose the Lebanese actresses and real-life sisters Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa to portray Yusra Mardini and her sister Sarah. They learned the Syrian dialect and Hassan helped them with the Damascus accent.
What are the aspects of the journey of migrants that you wanted to highlight when you made this movie?
The big thing was for people to understand that refugees are ordinary people. We fictionalized them, to show all the different reasons people could go on this journey. The character of Shada was escaping an abusive husband. Migration does not have to be related to economic reasons, it could be linked to climate change. I think we will be seeing more and more of these types of refugees in the upcoming decade. People have been moving for centuries and they will keep moving in the future.
Is the condition of women as they make the migratory journey also something you also wanted to show in this film?
I was not only trying to show the situation of female refugees but that of female refugees achieving their goals. Ironically, if the war in Syria had not broken out, I do not think that Yusra and Sarah would have accomplished everything they achieved. The war turns everything on its head. Patriarchal societies are upended, women are given new freedoms. I wanted this film to show girls and young women that they can follow their dreams. Growing up, I never thought Arab women could be heroes because they were never portrayed that way in movies and on television.
Were the actors in “The Swimmers” refugees themselves? What was it like for them to relive the experience of crossing the sea in a small boat?
In that group, there were Syrian refugees who had taken the journey. One of them had not taken the journey but he had relatives who had. He and his brother decided to take their children out of school for three months in order to allow them to participate in filming. They wanted their children to understand what people had gone through. The sea was rough and the actors endured only a fraction of what the migrants had gone through but that was the kind of gravitas that we had on set. For those who had gone through the experience aboard a dinghy, filming was a therapy and a healing process. The reason I wanted to cast refugees goes back to the idea of authenticity and letting people be part of the telling of their own story.
Are you still in touch with Sarah and Yusra Mardini? What are their current projects?
Yes, I am in contact with them. Yusra is studying currently studying film and television production in California. She recently got her German passport and she is setting up a foundation in Germany and the US aiming to help refugees through sport and education. Sarah has her court case in which she risks spending 25 years in prison. I hope “The Swimmers” shines a light on the absurdity of the charges which Amnesty International has called “trumped up” and “farcical”. Ultimately, I stand in solidarity with Sarah Mardini.
Lastly, could there eventually be a Part 2 of “The Swimmers”?
Absolutely, there are many stories that need to be told about refugees. When this film was conceived, Sarah was working with volunteers to help refugees in Lesbos and arrested by Greek authorities as part of an attempt to discourage other humanitarian workers from rescue operations. When she was released on bail, we saw first-hand how unjust this case really is. The case against Sarah and it says a lot about Europe. A lot of countries are hardening their stance towards refugees and anyone who helps them. In response, #freehumanitarians is an online petition where people can donate money and give their support. This is the resource Sarah wants people to be directed to when they learn about her case.
Editor's note: On January 6, a Greek court dropped charges of espionage against Sarah Mardini and two dozen aid workers ending the trial that was widely criticized by human rights organizations.
The defendants remain vulnerable to prosecution on charges of alleged human smuggling, money laundering and fraud.
> Migrant aid workers in Greece could face years in prison
> Row deepens over allegations of pushbacks in the Aegean
> In Greece, a chaotic trial to deter the arrival of migrants (1/2)
> Greece's asylum policy has been getting stricter instead of simpler over the past year