'The refugee crisis is political. We are lacking empathy': Director Sally El Hosaini on The Swimmers at CIFF

Magda Magdy, Sunday 20 Nov 2022

Egyptian-Welsh director Sally El Hosaini gave an open talk following the screening of her film The Swimmers at 44th Cairo International Film Festival

The Swimmers


A special panel was held on Thursday, 17 November, shedding light on a Netflix sports drama The Swimmers. Based on true events, the film follows the journey of two sisters who fled war from Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The Swimmers features a cast of well-known Arab and international actors, such as Lebanese sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa playing sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini; Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek; Syrian actress Kinda Alloush; as well as Matthias Schweighöfer (Germany); Ali Suleiman (Palestine), and James Krishna Floyd (UK). 

During the discussion El-Hosaini revealed that working with native Arabic speakers was very important to her. “I was working on casting Syrian actresses in Syria and diaspora. Paperwork and visa was so complicated so we decided to open up the casting search to include the Arab world as well to include Egypt, Syria and Lebanon,” she said.

“It was important for me to work with first time actors as well as professionals. Manal for instance is a professional actor, her sister Yusra who also stars in the film has less experience. However their chemistry as sisters on screen reflected the chemistry of real life sisters,” the director revealed. 

The film consists of many sequences shot at sea; they were done in Turkey, Greece and Eastern Europe. “It was very real, we went to the real coast where both sisters journeyed, the same boats, the same crossing sequence, we put the boat in the sea for real. We were surrounded with children and women refugees who were the supporting actors, many reliving their true experiences. Shooting was a very intense process.”

As the director explains she wanted the film to be real and honest. “This story has a happy ending and is one in a hundred of such cases. I also wanted to honor the 99% who were not that lucky.”

The sisters Yusra and Sarah went to Berlin to view the film in the cinema. “They were laughing and crying and looking at each other; when the film ended, Sarah jumped over all the seats, she was reminded how much she loved her sister, hugged her and cried, they felt they were both represented,” El-Hosaini shared during the discussion. 

“In the film, I wanted to highlight the sisters' love. They start competing with each other in the beginning but it ends with a coming of age transformational sisterhood. I also wanted to honor and highlight the bigger refugee story, which can be seen by the wide shots, life jackets, camps etc.” 

Shooting had its emotional moments such as the scene showing the crossing. “It was a nightmare. This is a place of trauma, nightmares, dreams, where the broken underwater sequences take place. This was the most difficult scene for Yusra in terms of emotions.”

She also recalled shooting in Turkey, part that she called the most challenging for the whole cast. “We had a big cast in Turkey. We had to make sure that everyone is emotionally ok. Netflix offers counselors and therapists so we were grateful for that. We were constantly moving around, spending not more than one day at some locations, caring for a big cast emotionally… I was often forgetting about myself.” 

And while the film tackles a serious political crisis, yet at the core of it are people. El-Hosaini filled The Swimmers with a lot of human aspects. “The refugee crisis is indeed political. What is lacking is empathy. The displacement of people has been happening for hundreds of years and with climate change, people are going to be displaced because of famine, drought etc. When you watch the news you only see statistics of refugees; I wanted to present a different story, one of love, empathy and emotions.”


*This article was originally published in CIFF's daily Bulletin, 19 November 2022, Issue 6.

Short link: