January 4, 2023

Movie Review: The Swimmers (Netflix - 2022)


Sometimes you need a story that reminds you of the power and resilience of the human spirit. This movie does that in spades.

By August of 2015, the civil war in Syria had been going on for over four years. Having lived in Syria and covering much of the civil was as a military analyst for CNN, this was of great interest.

The violence was non-stop; irreplaceable antiquities were destroyed as multiple factions began killing each other; a flood of refugees* created a humanitarian disaster and forever changed the character of numerous European cities; our nominal Turkish NATO allies strained the unity of the alliance with senseless interventions focused not on the new threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but on a generated/perceived threat from the Kurds in northern Syria while turning a blind eye to their almost open borders allowing jihadi terrorists from the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe to join ISIS in Syria; and American air support of the only group – Kurds – willing to take on ISIS.

The situation was so chaotic that a month later, the Russians deployed troops to bolster – and save – the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, their puppet in Damascus. The Russian intervention was not driven by love for Bashar al-Asad, but to guarantee continued access to a naval base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast at Tartus, and an air base just south of the port city of Latakia.

It was against this backdrop that two teenage sisters, Yusra and Sarah Mardini, decided that the violence in their Damascus suburb of Darayya had gotten so bad that they would try to leave Syria and seek refuge in Europe.

I am very familiar with the Darayya area. When I was posted as the air attaché at the American embassy in Damascus, I lived a mere half of a mile from the area. It is located on the edge of a Syrian air force base which was often the venue of sensitive activities. I took note – the role of an attaché is to observe and report.

Darayya saw massive destruction as the city was initially controlled by opposition groups. Given the sensitive location near the al-Mazzah air base, the regime decided to commit whatever force was necessary to bring it back under control. There was substantial damage to the city, and there were numerous civilian casualties in what became known as the “Darayya massacre.”

These two sisters are not just any teenagers. Both of the girls, especially the younger Yusra, were world class competitive swimmers, and had competed internationally.  Yusra’s goal was to swim in the Olympics. Training at that level during the ongoing civil was impossible, despite being trained by their father, a champion swimmer himself.

I did note that there is almost no mention of the Bashar al-Asad regime in the movie. I am not surprised - the family appears to be proud Syrians, and, the key here, Christian. During the civil war, most Christians sided with the government, fearing the backlash if a more Islamist regime replaced the secular Ba'ath party regime.

I do not want to spoil the flow of the movie. It is an incredible story of the Mardini sisters who finally realized their dreams. I am sure some of it is dramatized, but considering what these girls went through, I can live with it.

Yusra has become a United Nations goodwill ambassador, and Sarah became a volunteer assisting refugees in 2016 on the Greek island of Lesbos, where they arrived in Europe in 2015. Although she was arrested for her activities, she was allowed to post bond and leave Greece. Note to Sarah: Don’t go back.

Sarah and Yusra Mardini
Sarah and Yusra Mardini

When the movie was released at the Toronto Film Festival, the audience gave a four-minute standing ovation for the two sisters and the two Lebanese actresses (Manal and Nathalie Issa). Well deserved, in my opinion.

It’s a good movie and a great story - watch it on Netflix.


* I think the correct term is refugee. These people are not going back to Syria. Why would they?