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'The Swimmers' is a biographical drama about 2 sisters who flee Syria


The Netflix movie "The Swimmers" tells the story of two sisters. They tease each other, as sisters do, and push each other's buttons. In an early scene, they're together in a hallway, knocking on a door when Sara tells Yusra what awaits them behind it.


MANAL ISSA: (As Sara) By the way, it's not a dinner. It's your surprise birthday party.

NATHALIE ISSA: (As Yusra) I hate you.

M ISSA: (As Sara) Just don't ruin it for them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Surprise.

INSKEEP: The girls speak in English, though the birthday song, the ruined surprise, is sung in Arabic...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in Arabic).

INSKEEP: ...Because the family lives in Syria. It's 2011 when, for at least some people, Syria was a nice place to live. The sisters are talented swimmers whose father wants to send them to the Olympics until Syria's civil war begins, and no place is safe from falling bombs, not even the pool where they compete.


INSKEEP: "The Swimmers" is based on the real-life story of Syrian sisters who fled their country. Sara and Yusra Mardini became refugees, took a boat to Europe, and one of them, Yusra, did reach the Olympics afterward. In the movie, the sisters are played by two actors who are themselves sisters, Manal and Nathalie Issa. Nathalie, of course, knows something about being a sister.

N ISSA: We've always been close. We have, like, seven-year age gap between each other, but it's like, we never feel it.

INSKEEP: She also knows about fleeing a war. She grew up in Lebanon, whose many wars include one in 2006. NPR News reported on the start of the fighting.


NICHOLAS BLANFORD: This is an area where Hezbollah and the Israelis have clashed quite often in the past. And at the moment, they're being shelled quite heavily by the Israelis. There's been a continuous shelling all afternoon.

N ISSA: When I was 8 years old, like, the war started in Lebanon, so we came to France with my family.

INSKEEP: Do you have memories of what drove your family away at that time? What was happening?

N ISSA: Of course. It's just like, we could die any second. And I remember, I was 8 years old, and I was not - like, I knew that I could die any minute. It's not what a child should think about. And I was really scared for my parents to die. I was never scared myself would die. I was always scared for the people around me. And you were never expecting when the bomb will come and just kill you.

INSKEEP: She could relate to the story of the Syrian swimmers, though Issa says the Syrians' escape was far more harrowing than her own. At one point in the film, the sisters are on a small, crowded boat.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We're in this together. We need to work together. (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: And as the boat takes on water, they try to pair up swimmers with nonswimmers, speaking in both English and Arabic.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Who here knows how to swim? (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) OK, the people with their hands up, choose someone with their hands down. It's your duty to help them. It's your responsibility. (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: How much thought did you and the filmmakers give to which language to speak when?

N ISSA: Yeah. This actually was a huge debate because we really wanted to speak Arabic all the time during the Syria times, and between the sisters, we really wanted to speak all the time Arabic because this is what happens. But we really wanted to at least add the Arabic during the most, like, sensitive scenes - for example, the fight scenes, where they cry, where they fight and everything, where they really are in their deepest emotion, to add the Arabic thing because this is how it feels like. And the English part, of course, it seems logic when they meet refugees, when they are in Berlin and everything. If it was up to me, we would have spoken Arabic during all the Syria scenes and all the scenes between two sisters. But...

INSKEEP: Why would you have wanted that?

N ISSA: Because this is the reality, I mean, when I'm with my sister because I also came from Lebanon, and I'm in France, and when I'm with my family, I don't speak English; I speak Arabic. And this is - it's still happening after 15 years. And so - but the thing is that Yusra and Sara also speak English a lot together, and they also told us that sometimes when they wanted to speak about something that their parents - that they didn't want their parents to hear...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

N ISSA: They used to - yeah, they used to use English. But yeah, sometimes we wanted to speak more Arabic because it's such a beautiful language, and I think it should be heard more, especially on a big platform. Don't you think so?

INSKEEP: It is a beautiful language.


INSKEEP: Since it happened in real life, it's not giving away the ending to say that Yusra swam in the 2016 Olympics.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Take your mark.


INSKEEP: The organizers allowed the creation of a refugee team for athletes separated from their nations. Nathalie Issa portrays Yusra onscreen in that moment, both triumphant and sad.

Can I ask one more silly question?

N ISSA: Of course.

INSKEEP: Are you a good swimmer?

N ISSA: Now, yes. I do...

INSKEEP: (Laughter) What did you have to do to be?

N ISSA: I didn't know how to swim before. I really...

INSKEEP: At all?

N ISSA: At all.

INSKEEP: Go on. So you became an Olympic swimmer, at least on the screen. What did you have to do?

N ISSA: Yeah, in six weeks (laughter), I went from nonswimmer to Olympic swimmer.


N ISSA: I was really scared of water. And this is what made me also feel like, oh, my God, I'm not good enough to be able to do this role. So my love for Yusra, my love for the script made me, like, have this courage to face my fear.

INSKEEP: It was persuasive. What is it that you want the outside world to know about your region that they didn't know that you want to represent to them?

N ISSA: That we are normal. You know, when I arrived to France, a lot of people asked me weird question about the Middle East. Like, are you beaten by your dad? Are you allowed to go dance? Are you allowed to go out? Is everybody veiled? Like, why are you not veiled? Like, a lot of questions that I find weird but also a lack of representation, I think. So I want them to know that our people just live like European girl. Like, they go to dance. They have fun. They are not, like, under the control of a father or anything. And they just are normal, and they don't always live in fear, and there is not always, like, problems in the country. They are just people having dreams like you guys and that we are just normal, just normal.

INSKEEP: Those words from Nathalie Issa bring to mind the way the swimmers are at the start of the Netflix film, before their unimaginable experiences, that moment when they're just two sisters in a family walking together, teasing each other, thinking of the future. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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