Everything You Need to Know About Netflix’s The Swimmers

The Syrian sisters saved lives fleeing the country (and ended up at the Olympics)

Everything You Need to Know About Netflix’s The Swimmers
Yaseen Dockrat

Welsh-Egyptian director Sally El Hosaini’s much anticipated movie The Swimmers, opens the Toronto International Film Festival today. A story of two teenage sisters who fled Syria, helping save the lives of fellow refugees along the way, that goes all the way to the 2016 Rio Olympics and the Refugee Olympic team. Its place as the festival’s opening movie – it will stream on Netflix – is yet another example of the upward trajectory of Arab cinema in 2022.

The True Story Behind The Swimmers

Shortly after their house is destroyed in the civil war that engulfed Syria in 2015, Yusra and Sara Mardini were forced to flee Damascus. The two sisters journeyed to Lebanon and then Turkey, from which they planned to be smuggled into Greece on a dinghy. As they journey across the Aegean Sea, the engine of the overcrowded dinghy cuts off and the pair, along with two other swimmers, took responsibility for saving the lives of their fellow passengers.

The sisters, along with two other refugees who could swim, swam alongside the boat preventing it from sinking until they reached Lesbos Island. During the devastating journey Sara injured her shoulder and was forced to retire from her young swimming career. The pair settled in Berlin with their parents sometime later, where Yusra made great strides in her career, ultimately making it to the 2016 Rio Olympics. Under the flag of the IOC Refugee Olympic team, Yusra competed in the 100m freestyle and 100m butterfly events.

Yusra would go on to compete again at the 2020 Tokyo event. The Olympic swimmer would return to Greece to assist other migrants, but she was arrested along with 23 other humanitarian workers on the charges of smuggling. Sara spent over 100 days in jail until she was released pending a trial (which is still ongoing). Sara now lives in Germany where she was granted asylum.

The Cast

The film tells the story of two sisters, so Netflix cast real-life sisters Manal and Nathalie Issi in the role of siblings Sarah and Yusra Mardini. This film is the first global role for the Issi sisters. Manal Played the role of Lina in the 2015 Parisienne, as well as in last year’s The Anger, playing the role of a young Lebanese girl who escapes from her village. James Krishna Floyd, famous for his role in The Good Karma Hospital, as well as Ahmed Malek and Ali Suliman also have roles in the film. 

The movie is director El Hosaini’s first since My Brother the Devil was released in 2014. Premiering at Sundance Film Festival, it won the award for ‘World Cinema Cinematography: Drama’. She was also recognised with the ‘Best British Newcomer’ prize at the BFI London Film Festival and the ‘Best European Film’ prize at Berlinale.


The film was shot at several locations in Turkey, Belgium, and the UK. 

The swimmers will stream on Netflix and appear in selected theatres from November 23