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TIFF: ‘The Swimmers’ Stars Manal, Nathalie Issa on Learning to Swim for Their Roles

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In Netflix’s The Swimmers, Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa — Lebanese actors and sisters in real life — play the roles of Yusra and Sara Mardini, swimming sisters who fled Syria as refugees and competed in the pool at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But being cast and finally signing onto their roles was complicated initially by the Issa sisters not knowing how to swim.

“The first time I received the offer for the role, I refused it because I couldn’t swim,” Manal Issa, who plays Sarah Mardini, told a press conference for The Swimmers at the Toronto Film Festival on Friday.

Her sister Nathalie, who plays Yusra Mardini, also shared a phobia about water. “Even when she (Manal) told me about the movie, she said ‘it’s about swimmers.’ I said forget about it. I’m not gonna swim, let me finish my studies,” Nathalie Issa added during the TIFF presser.

But, while not having to swim competitively in the refugee drama, the Issa sisters did undergo two months of pre-production training in the swimming pool to allow them to portray refugees dangerously crossing the Aegean sea in a swamped dinghy to reach Greece.

“It was really hard at first, but then we persevered. And once you know how to float, it’s nice in the water and you want to freestyle, and once you have a goal, you want to achieve it,” Nathalie Issa added about swimming lessons ahead of production.

In director’s Sally El Hosaini’s drama, the Mardini sisters battle fear and exhaustion to stay alive in their refugee-filled dinghy on their way to Greece. At one point, the sisters jump into the water to swim on as Yusra, hearing her father’s words, finds her lane in the dark sea and is on the point of collapse before she and her sister Sara arrive at a beach in Lesbos.

From there, after a dangerous onward journey on land, the sisters get to Berlin and, after passing through a refugee shelter, are taken on as competitive swimmers once again by a local swim coach.

El Hosaini told the TIFF presser that the heroism of the Mardini sisters convinced her to take on the project. “They’re so inspirational, what they went through. And what they went through as people, they reminded me of myself when I was younger,” the director, who is half Egyptian and grew up in Egypt explained.

“There’s a certain type of young Arab women that I don’t see on screens, who is liberal and modern and bilingual, and they reminded me of myself and my friends growing up, and here was an opportunity to put those experiences through the lens of that story,” El Hosaini said.

Yusra Mardini added El Hosaini sharing in their Middle Eastern upbringings and experiences gave them comfort that their story of refugee flight from war-torn Syria could be told well in The Swimmers.

“Our goal is to put the conversation about refugees back on the table, to tell everyone it’s still happening and to get refugees to know it’s okay to share what you went through,” she said.

The Toronto Film Festival continues through Sept. 17



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