By Anna Mehler Paperny
TORONTO (Reuters) – The stars and real-life inspiration for the film “The Swimmers” strutted along the red carpet Thursday to open the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival – the first in-person version of Toronto’s celebration of film since the pandemic.
“The Swimmers,” a Netflix film that premieres in some theaters Nov. 23, is a dramatization of a true story of two sisters who fled their home and endured a harrowing journey before rebuilding their lives and, for one of them, making it to the Olympics.
Sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini, played by real-life sisters Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa, fled Syria’s war-torn capital Damascus to seek a new life in Europe. They crossed into Lebanon and Turkey and braved an often lethal crossing for migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, helping to get their over-crowded dinghy to shore. They made it to Greece and continued to Germany.
Yusra Mardini was selected to compete for the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and competed again in 2020. Her sister Sara, meanwhile, became active helping refugees.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 24,598 people have gone missing in the Mediterranean since 2014.
This reality was driven home when film crews saw dinghies with real-life migrants as they shot the film’s dinghy scene, director Sally El Hosaini told Reuters.
“We saw the dinghies crossing when we were filming. And it just reminds you of how important this story is.”
She said she used handmade lenses with imperfections to portray scenes in a way far removed from news images to keep people from tuning out.
Manal Issa, who plays Sara Mardini in the film, said the discourse around refugees and asylum-seekers needs to change in both fiction and news coverage, highlighting what she said was a different approach to refugees fleeing war in Ukraine from those from outside of Europe.
“You know what happened this year with Ukraine: ‘It’s not Afghanistan. It’s not Syria’ … This is what people believe.”
It was “crazy” to see her life translated to the big screen, Yusra Mardini said. Standing beside her sister on the red carpet in a glittering silver sequined dress in front of a series of microphones, she said she knows she and her sister are now uniquely placed to have a strong voice on this issue.
“Obviously this movie is going to put the conversation on the table again, speaking about refugees, speaking about the crisis.”
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Christopher Cushing)