Netflix’s The SwimmersSally El Hosaini’s drama based on a real journey of two young sisters from war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics, earned a 4-minute standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival on Thursday night.
And the biggest cheers from the rapturous Toronto audience were for Lebanese actresses and real-life sisters, Manal and Nathalie Issa, who played real-life sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini as all four young women appeared on stage at Roy Thomson Hall for the film’s world. Premiere.
“It’s an inspirational story,” director El Hosaini said during a post-screening Q&A when explaining why she took on the project, as the Toronto festival looks to crowd-pleasing. The Swimmers with its tears and emotional breakthroughs to possibly be this award season’s CODAwhich pulled out a best picture win at last year’s Oscars.
The Swimmers traces the incredible journey of the Mardini sisters who escaped war-torn Syria, dragging a dinghy of refugees to safety across the Aegean Sea, and made it all the way to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I’m very speechless. It’s an honor, to be honest, to be chosen among many, many refugees to be spoken about. But this story is not just about me and my sister. It’s about sisters, it’s about women, it’s about refugees, and stateless people all over the world,” Yusra Mardini said.
As they fled their home in Damascus, the real Mardini sisters had to swim in choppy Mediterranean seas to reach the Greek island of Lesbos as asylum seekers, before going on to compete in the pool at the Rio Olympic Games.
“I still don’t believe that we’re here today,” added sister Sarah Mardini. “Our goal in telling this story to put the refugee story on the table and to tell people we have dreams just like you.”
The opening ceremony for the festival and the UK film introduced to an invite-only audience at Roy Thomson Hall struck a sombre note to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch in history earlier in the day at age 96.
“As we gather tonight to celebrate the power of film, I want to acknowledge the passing today of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Everyone here, and around the world, are mourning her loss,” TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey told the Roy Thomson Hall audience.
As the festival got underway on Thursday night, two key TIFF venues on King Street and near to Roy Thomson Hall, The Princess of Wales Theater and the Royal Alex Theatre, dimmed their marquee lights at 8 pm as a sign of respect for the British monarch. .
Mirvish Productions, which operates both royal theaters, had to secure the permission of Toronto fest organizers as they hold nightly Hollywood movie premieres at both theaters.
The festival set to run to Sept. 18 will continue into the weekend with other premiere screenings for Viola Davis’ The Woman King, Netflix’s follow-up to Rian Johnson’s 2019 movie. Knives Out starring Daniel Craig, and Sanaa Lathan’s feature directorial debut On the Come Up.
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