December 16, 2022 – On a cold winter night, I decided to watch this Netflix movie to warm me up a bit. While it has more than its share of danger, and the awful backdrop of war-torn Syria, it has the warming effect of survival, perseverance and triumph, too.
At the story's center are the swimming sisters, Yusra Mardini (played by Nathalie Issa) and Sarah Mardini (played by Manal Issa). In case you didn't catch that, these actresses are sisters, playing real life sisters. The sisters, living in Damascus, after their house in nearby Darayya was destroyed in the civil war, are being trained by their father, who was also a competitive swimmer.
Yusra embraces the training routine, while Sarah rebels against it. She likes to party and wants to get out of Syria. In fact, she wants to get the whole family out of Syria. Lots of people want to get out of Syria, millions of them. They are flooding into Europe to get away from the war, and overwhelming the social service systems of even the most prosperous nations, like Germany.
Yusra is easily winning a swimming competition one day when bombs hit the building. A bomb lands in the swimming pool next to Yusra, but fails to explode. After that close call, the family decides to allow Yusra and Sarah to leave Syria and head for Germany, where friends live.
Yusra and Sarah's father, Ezzat Mardini (played by Ali Suliman of “Lone Survivor”) argues against his daughters making the dangerous journey alone, only agreeing after being convinced that they would be accompanied by a cousin, Nizar (Ahmed Malek) and that he would swear to protect the girls.
Nizar did not want to go with the girls, thinking Germany was too cold. His plan was to escape to Canada, but the girls convince him that Canada is even colder than Germany, so he accompanies the girls. The trip is full of danger, unscrupulous smugglers, razor wire fences, armed border patrols, and finally, a leaky inflatable boat with a worn-out outboard motor to make the dangerous Aegean Sea crossing to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The crossing is incredibly dangerous as the inflatable boat is overloaded, taking on water. Then, the outboard motor quits. The situation is so desperate that the sisters, and two other people jump out of the boat and pull it and push it for hours, on towards Lesbos. The Mardini sisters are called superheroes by the passengers after they finally reach the shore.
After this incredible feat, the sisters still have many borders to cross to get to Germany, and more unscrupulous smugglers and border guards to avoid. Nizar does prove his worth on the trip as well, discovering a bus convoy for refugees that finally gets them all to Germany.
In Germany, they are housed in a giant refugee center where they face reams of paperwork and long months of waiting to find out how the German government will finally decide their status. Undeterred, Yusra somehow discovers a nearby swimming center and persuades a swimming coach, Sven (Matthias Schweighöfer) to let her show him what she can do in the pool. She swims a fast time, convinging Sven to help her prepare for the Olympics.
Under Sven's guidance, Yusra swims fast enough to compete in the Olympics. She wants to represent Syria, but that is not possible. However, she is allowed to compete as part of an Olympic-sponsored refugee team. Sarah shows up unexpectedly at the Olympics and gives her sister a pep talk, telling Yusra not to swim just for herself, but for all the other refugees, and for Sven as well, who never got to compete in the Olympics himself as a swimmer.
Obviously, this is an inspiring story, well presented by director Sally El Hosaini (she also co-wrote the story with Jack Thorne). The actors are also convincing. Cinematography by Christopher Ross (“Room” and “Cold Mountain”) and editing, by Iain Kitching, are top notch, including an arresting fade out shot along a railroad grade where the refugees are walking. But somehow, the real story seems more impressive than the movie, which seems bogged down in rather petty squabbles among the sisters and Nizar, all of them unhappy that their lives aren't perfect. This film rates a B.
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