• Festivals

“The Swimmers” – Opening Night TIFF 2022 Film

The opening night film at TIFF, The Swimmers, is a soaring epic that dramatizes the true story of Yusra and Sarah Mardini, two sisters who left their home in war-torn Syria for a new life in Europe and a chance to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics.


At the red-carpet premiere in Toronto, audiences were enthusiastic to welcome, not just the cast – including twin sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa who played the Mardini sisters, and German actor Matthias Schweighöfer, who played their European Olympic swim coach, Sven Spannekrebs – but also to hear from their real-life counterparts, who spoke to press the following morning about the surreal experience of having a movie made about one’s own life.


Directed by Sally El Hosaini (My Brother the Devil), the film tells the remarkable story of Yusra and Sarah, young sisters who decide to risk the perilous journey to Europe with their cousin (Ahmed Malek) through Turkey and are abandoned by smugglers after they are put onto a small inflatable boat, teeming with fellow refugees, to cross a frequently lethal stretch of the Mediterranean Sea. “The dinghy crossing on the water, we did for real,” Sally reveals. “We had another dinghy tied to the boat with a camera and we went to the place in Turkey where dinghies are still crossing. In fact, on our location scouts, we actually saw boats crossing in front of us, so it’s still happening.”

Sally says that, as a female filmmaker born in Wales but raised in Cairo, she jumped at the chance to tell this story. “My parents were refugees too,” she explains, “and I grew up in Egypt and there’s a certain type of young Arab woman that I don’t see on screens who is liberal, modern, and bilingual. They reminded me of my friends and I growing up,” she adds, “so I just thought, ‘This is an opportunity for me to put those experiences through the lens of their story.’”

Nathalie and Manal Issa, who played the sisters, confessed it was initially overwhelming to portray these extraordinary women, who are now ambassadors for refugees and continue to raise awareness about the ongoing global refugee crisis. “The first time I met Yusra was before we started filming,” Nathalie says. “I was really intimidated but, after five minutes, we were making jokes and having fun and it was all good. I felt a huge responsibility, so when she told me she loved the film, I was so happy.”

Sally says she was unable to cast Syrian actresses in the roles because of visa issues in the countries where she wanted to film; she was looking for actresses from at least the same part of the world who could play sisters when she met Nathalie at an audition and found out she had a twin sister at home studying literature. They eventually convinced Manal to postpone her studies and make her acting debut in a lead role.

But the biggest barrier for both women? Nathalie looks embarrassed as she reveals, “The first time I received the offer, I refused it because I had this water phobia, and I couldn’t swim. Neither of us could swim – we couldn’t even float!”

Manal adds, “Even when she told me about the movie, she was, like, ‘Oh, it’s about swimmers’ and I was, like, ‘Forget about it, I’m not going to swim, let me finish my studies!’”

The sisters trained for two months, and while the real Yusra Mardini told the press she eventually doubled for herself in some of the more competitive butterfly swimming scenes, Manal says the lessons paid off in other ways. “We worked hard to make sure we looked like swimmers,” she adds, “and in the end, the swimming really helped, because it helped me enter the character and understand how she felt in the water when she wanted to achieve something in the water.”