They say that in de jure terms the American dream is for anyone; no matter your ethnicity, religion, or gender everyone is given an equal opportunity (and this is believed to be a universal concept). However, the facts are that some governments instead label people from certain backgrounds and countries as illegal or alien. The UK is one of those governments, with the Tories willing to spend £476 million (over the next few years) to help aid France in its attempts to stop migrants getting into the UK. It would be better served helping migrants or even those struggling with the energy crises and cost of living. This topic has been particularly relevant in the news of as recent with Gary Lineker calling out the conservative’s treatment of refugees as ‘similar to that of 1930’s Germany’.
This in mind, I thought it was a good time to write a review on a film I had been meaning to watch for a few months now called The Swimmers (2022). The Swimmers is the story of two Syrian sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini who took the journey like many other refugees did on boats and were smuggled across borders in Europe. Yusra would eventually go on to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympics. It is the first ground-breaking motion picture about refugees to really have an influence on western media (or at least it feels that way). Tom Sherak, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said in an interview “Movies are a form of communication… which emotionally connects you” and in this regard you can’t help but feel a deep sadness that a human should have to go through such fear and anxiety just to stay alive.
Yusra and Sarah both hope to eventually become swimmers one day and compete at the Olympics, although Yusra is the more determined of the two sisters to make it. Yusra’s father initially is adamant that his daughters stay in Syria and continue to train in the hopes that the Syrian civil war will be over soon. Although, it isn’t long before the chaos of the civil war is right in Yusra’s face as a missile crashes the venue where she competes at a tournament. This makes their father reconsider and allow the sisters to leave the country under the supervision of their cousin Nizar to Germany where it would be safe for them. However, it is not long before the harsh realities of travelling to Europe hit the sisters, they both must get off the boat headed towards Greece with other refugees on it and swim because it is too heavy.
Both scenes described above are extremely uncomfortable because of the use of close ups where first a live missile could have killed Yusra if it had exploded. But it is perhaps the boat scene that is even more uncomfortable to the point that you can feel the intensity of the water filling the boat (it’s like you’re about to drown), it is claustrophobic because of the closeness of the camera it feels as if you are there. We then see Yusra and Sarah get off the boat, the camera is hit with the crashing waves of the sea and sometimes even going under water momentarily, to make you realise the possibility of the sisters dying at sea. The fact that I can watch this over a screen and yet Yusra and Sarah lived and swam through this for three hours across the Aegan Sea to Greece is horrifying to even contemplate. It is most definitely the toughest part of the film to watch, the scene is about thirteen minutes long in the boat and yet it felt like it was closer to thirty minutes. The trauma is evident on these people’s faces once they land on the shores of a beach in Greece and Yusra cannot containher emotions as she bursts into tears, Sarah tries to comfort her while Nizar looks lifeless. It is a heart-breaking moment seeing the innocence of youth snatched from them, this moment onwards their lives are not the same. You see, after they leave the beach a bird’s eye shot of all the countless other life jackets, it was a nice touch to send the message that just because this film is about Yusra and Sarah, we must not forget the millions of other refugees who also face such struggles.
In the second half of the film, we see Yusra and Sarah’s journey through Europe crossing the border from Serbia to Hungary dangerously in the back of lorries and climbing over barbed wire fences etc… When they finally reach Germany; Yusra, Sarah, and Nizar struggle to adapt to life in the camps and Berlin as they feel isolated. Despite Yusra and Sarah joining a swimming club, and moving out of the camp, Nizar struggles to find a job and Sarah is told that it may take years for the application process (moving to Germany) of the rest of their family to go through.
Through all this struggle Yusra makes it onto the refugee team at the Olympics of 2016 and goes onto win gold at Rio in a heart capturing scene. All the adversity that Yusra went through to get to a podium is astonishing, had she given up swimming I think anyone would understand her reasons and yet she proved herself to be an elite level athlete. Her resilience alone must be commended, enduring all that she did, I don’t think there are many that would have continued in her shoes.
I’d like to touch as well briefly on the choice of the artist Sia by the producers. While initially I thought choosing Sia was just motivational or to set the scene, I believe it goes deeper than that. Sia built her music profile not in the limelight like other pop stars but decided to cover her face rocking a long dramatic fringe, covering her face completely so her identity could remain anonymous. Bringing this back to the film, Yusra says that her competing at the Olympics is not just about herself but the millions of refugees around the world whose voice or face aren’t seen. A refugee can be anyone which is what I think was the purpose of Sia’s music being used, and historically displaced groups have existed throughout the world; therefore, it is a struggle for us all to concern ourselves with. Nothing in life is guaranteed, and one day it could be us who are desperately searching out for help, so must we be so cold hearted towards those who seek a new life?
‘’This life can be good one minute and next minute, it can turn bad. So don’t look down on nobody ‘cause that’s how life can turn for everybody’’
One of the scenes that Yusra picks out as her favourite in a Netflix interview is the rooftop party. Yusra says that just because the war in Syria was going on, they still wanted to have fun and live normal teenage lives. She adds to this by saying that the perception of Arabic countries only has war and destruction but ignores the culture and vast landscapes that many, and especially Syria, possess. While I cannot say I remember my visit to Syria off memory as I was only two years old at the time; I can confirm what Yusra says from the videos I have seen taken of my family’s trip, with stunning viewpoints, thriving restaurants and fun arcades to go to etc… In my opinion it has the best desserts in the region, you must try Barazek it is my favourite! It has temples and amphitheatres being the heart of the Byzantine empire once upon a time ago. It has also contributed greatly to history; it is where the second oldest semitic language was formed (Ebla), was one of the centres of the neolithic age as well as one of the first places where agriculture and cattle breeding existed, and the list could go on.
Thus, in perspective, to build on what Yusra was saying before you judge those who migrate as just a ‘refugee’,people are not displaced because they want to be but because they have no choice. Had a young 20-year-old man not lefthis home country due to war in 1980, this article would not exist! I really hope this article has encouraged you to watch The Swimmers, it is an important story and one that I think we should all be mindful of, especially when the conversation of refugees comes up. To end this piece, I would like to leave us with some thoughts of a student at the university and good friend on what makes him proud to have Syrian heritage.
Hatim Aessa on his connection with Syria:
“I was born in UCL hospital in the heart of London to two immigrant parents, my father from Iraq and my mother from Syria. I visited my family every summer and was schooled in Syria several times. To me, Syria is a place of hope, a place of love and a place of happiness. It is a country that is best described as an ear-to-ear smile. It is bright, warm, and disarming with its beauty.
As I have grown, Syria has witnessed war, we have lost family and hurt constantly. What I love about Syrians, be that Arabs as a whole, is the ability we have to recuperate, smile and re-engage, all while battling some of the harshest devastation our world has seen.
My absolute favourite thing is the food. The rich variety and gentle culmination of unattractive ingredients to create outstanding dishes is unparalleled. The thing I miss most is my grandma’s cooking and my grandfather’s bountiful fruit trees. I miss them every day.
Hug your families tight as you watch this film, and aim to engage and promote those who are seeking to be a part of your area, they mean their best and they want to learn. Give refugees the space to grow and contribute. I promise, you will see your community flourish.”