Swimmers, The: Syrian Refugees Drama Opens 2022 Toronto Film Fest

The Toronto audience rose to their feet for Lebanese actresses and real-life sisters, Manal and Nathalie Issa, and sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini, the subjects of Sally El Hosaini’s Netflix refugee drama.


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.

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.

“I’m speechless. It’s an honor, to be honest, to be chosen between 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,” sister Sarah Mardini added. “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 U.K. film introduced to invite-only audience at Roy Thomson Hall struck somber 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. Everyone here, and around the world, are mourning her loss,” TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey told the Roy Thomson Hall audience.

Mirvish Productions, which operates both royal theaters, had to secure the permission of Toronto fest organizers as they held nightly Hollywood premieres at both theaters.