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Thread: THE SWIMMERS (Sally El Hosaini 2022)

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    Jul 2002
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    THE SWIMMERS (Sally El Hosaini 2022)



    A refugee athlete drama that gets in over its head

    Why Welsh-Egyptian director Sally El Hosaini has had no credit in the ten years since her promising debut feature other than three episodes of a TV series on the London police is something of a mystery. My Brother the Devil (2012) crackles with the dialect and the youthful macho of a giant Hackney housing estate. Non actors are woven among the pros and the lingo sounds so authentic it's sometimes impenetrable. ("Food" is a drug delivery and "want to blaze a zoo?" means "care to smoke a doobie?") The plot involves two kinds of "family." One is the Egyptian working couple and their sons and the cousins, the other is "DMG" - aka Drugs, Money, Guns, a local gang handsome Rash (James Floyd), the elder son, is a force in. Like a 1930s Warner Bros. character he wants to use gang activity to fund the education of younger bro Mo (Fady Elsayed) and make him legit. Mo is drawn to the macho glamor of the gang, then confused and disappointed when Rash sees his best friend Izzi cut down by a rival gang and turns to straight life.

    In My Brother the Devil Floyd, Elsayed and the other multi-race young men and women bring warmth and authenticity to the screen, enhanced by the beautiful, intimate cinematography of dp David Raedeker. However, a sexual confusion subplot winds up seeming a clumsy distraction. While Peter Bradshaw said this film had My Beautiful Launderette "somewhere in its DNA," the allusion only brings out how flimsy this plot is by comparison, and incidentally Frears handled homosexuality so much less hysterically in Hanif Kureishi's screenplay seventeen years earlier. Still, despite My Brother's conventional beats and missteps, it brims with life and El Hosaini works terrifically with her young actors. (See David Rooney's admiring Sundance review.)

    There's a lot of life going on between the actors in The Swimmers too. Siblings feature again, this time in a real story about Syrian sister swimmers Sara and Yusra Mardini, played by real sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa. This time while they speak English - very important later on - they also speak a lot of (more or less) Syrian Arabic, and in many ways the complex cultural and linguistic atmosphere of the new film feels richly authentic. It winds up failing in other ways, however, of a more sweeping structural nature.

    The siblings are training hard in Damascus, living with their family with their father their coach, when Al Asad's ultra violent repression of Syria's response to the Arab Spring leads them to decide, encouraged by their parents and above all their coach father, to become refugees and escape to Germany, where they hope to resume training and (Insha'Allah ) somehow make it to the 2016 Rio Olympics. Implausibly, the real-life Mardini sisters actually succeeded, though only Manal made it into the Olympics, on the Refugee Olympic Team. Sara loses her athletic motivation and instead goes back to Greece to be an activist for the refugees. We learn in final titles that she has run into serious legal troubles - a life that might have been a less conventional and more interesting story than the feel-good athlete-struggling-to-victory one Al Hosaini has chosen.

    El Hosaini is great at the family dynamics and the intimacy, the love and hate, that flow between Sara and Yusra. She also captures the camaraderie among the other refugees going from Damascus to Lebanon, to Turkey, Turkey to Greece, and Greece across Europe to Germany. Most of this is the kind of story that we have seen in numerous recent films, most famously the animated personal narrative Flee. Another is Hassan Fazili's cellphone-shot journal, Midnight Traveler; most comprehensive is Ai Wei Wei's Human Flow. The major exploit of the Mardini sisters' refugee saga comes when the they pay traffickers in Turkey to put them on a dingy to go across the Aegean to Lesbos, and this little patched-up vessel, overloaded with dozens of people, loses its engine and starts to sink and Sara and Yusra jump out and swim for three hours, dragging it to shore.

    But this key sequence is where El Hosaini starts to seem out of her depth. The turbulent passage to Lesbos action is crowded and jumbled, and what should have been thrilling feels monotonous and repetitious. From then on the movie is more and more an ordeal for the viewer, especially when the sisters finally make it to Germany and El Hosaini clearly doesn't know where to end. Details are very realistic. One is struck by the scenes when the survivors of the crossing to Lesbos walk past hundreds of yellow life jackets, also when they walk into the town, cafes won't serve them, and you realize while we look on them as heroes or martyrs, where they land refugees are often more seen as a burden.

    It seems incredible that after the long journey to Germany has been completed, Sara and Yusra one day can walk away from the vast warehouse the government has provided to refugees and find an Olympic size swimming pool wherethe coach, Sven (Matthias Schweighöfer), once he has found a borrowed bathing suit and seen how fast Manal can swim, will wind up taking them in. But this apparently actually happened.

    The trouble is that a refugee's story is many stories, but in particular the effort to revive the sister's swimming career along with all the physical challenges of crossing half the world and all the bureaucratic complexities of transitional status in Germany, is a little too much to take in. It might have been effective to end the film when Sara and Yusra make it into Germany and see the arch in Berlin. It is a thrilling, satisfying moment. A title could have explained what happens thereafter. But instead the film goes on and on until one is praying for it to end. It is only a little over two hours long but it feels like three.

    We realize that El Hosaini let her narrative get out of control in My Brother the Devil too. She is great with vernacular action. She can capture fear, excitement, and the passion of youth very well. But she needs to learn how to confine the action to a workable, coherent narrative. The Swimmers has lots of good detail and many - too many - good secondary characters (including the actor who played Rash, now known as James Krishna Floyd, as one of the refugees), but what might function, if better written, in a mini-series, feels overstuffed here. This Netflix film may have been well funded, which shows up in the detailed and rich mise-en-scène, but that doesn't make it a success. Peter Debruge points out in his Variety review howThe Swimmers is submerged in a sludgy s tea of Sia songs, and falsely implies that Yusra won an Olympic gold medal at the end when she actually came in nearly last.

    The Swimmers, 134 mins., opened at the Zurich film festival, after a debut Sept. 2, 2022 at Toronto. It also showed at London, the Hamptons, and appropriately perhaps, was the closing film at Rio. Screened for this review at Landmark Albany Twin Nov. 11, 2022. Coming to Netflix Nov. 23. Metacritic rating 60%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-22-2022 at 09:40 AM.


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