Manal Issa and Nathalie Issa, real life sisters who play a pair of Olympic swimming hopefuls, also sisters, said they weren’t at all aquatic when cast in the Sally El Hosaini film ‘The Swimmers’ that opened TIFF last night.
“Manal and Natalie couldn’t swim when they took the roles,” El Hosaini said at a press conference Friday live streamed on Twitter.
“I was like, ‘forget about it’. I wasn’t going to swim. Let me finish my studies,” said Nathalie. “It was really hard at first. But once you know how to float, it’s really nice, and once you have a goal you want to reach it. It’s how you feel when you are in the water, and how you feel when you want to achieve something” — similar to her character.
Nathalie and Manal play Yusra and Sara Mardini, teenage sisters trying to live as normally as possible in war-torn Syria, they eventually flee as Russian bombs fly – one exploding in their pool. They finally flee to Istanbul via Beirut on tourist visas, followed by a harrowing ocean crossing to the shores of Lesbos, and ultimately passage to Berlin. There Yusra meets Sven (Matthias Schweighofer), a local swim club coach who helps her fulfill a dream of competing in the 2019 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Both sets of sisters were on stage, along with Schweighofer and the actual Sven, the day after a warm opening night reception for the film and strong reviews (Deadline’s here) for the Netflix film, which is part searing refugee drama and part inspirational sports film, but grounded in the love relationships between the two women at its core.
Yusra and Sara are trying to live as normally as possible in war-torn Syria but eventually flee as Russian bombs fly – one exploding in their pool. They head to Istanbul via Beirut on tourist visas, followed by a harrowing ocean crossing to the shores of Lesbos, and ultimately passage to Berlin. There Yusra meets Sven (Matthias Schweighofer), a local swim club coach who helps her fulfill a dream of competing in the 2019 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Schweighofer and the actual Sven were also on hand.
Hosaini collaborated with Jack Thorne on the adaptation based on Yusra’s 2018 autobiography, Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian — My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph. The Welsh-Egyptian filmmaker’s debut was 2013 crime drama My Brother the Devil.
In casting the sisters, El Hosaini said “the main thing was Yusra and Sara themselves. They are so inspirational…They remind me of myself, and my friends growing up. There is a certain type of Arab woman that you don’t see on screens.”
She initially tried to cast Syrian actors in the role but found, tellingly, that most of them were refugees with paperwork complications that made it hard to film in all the locales she wanted. “So we expanded the search to the Levant. It was important that they were native Arabic speakers who could act in English and Arabic. I knew about Manal from her Lebanese independent films, and she said she had a sister. Her sister didn’t want to act, she was studying literature.” But the screen test was “incredible and it was clear they were the right sisters.”
The film’s most dramatic sequence, the sea journey, was filmed in Turkey and the Aegean coast at points where refugees have and are still attempting to cross to safety.
“We put the boat in the water and filmed it. There was a little camera dingy alongside the real dingy,” El Hosaini said. Others on the overloaded craft were actual refugees who had already made that journey, “which informed the feeling and vibe on the boat.”
Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner are producers, along with Tim Cole and Ali Jaafar. Director Stephen Daldry is among the executive producers.
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