A harrowing but tonally harrowing drama
A moving and harrowing film based on a true story, The Swimmers blends a tumultuous array of emotions over its 2 hour 10 minute run. Regardless of your personal attitude towards refugees, the film succeeds in showing how difficult and dangerous the journey can be for these men and women. In an effort to escape oppression, war, and/or abuse, people stare into the jaws of death, and many are swallowed up never to be heard from again.
For those who don’t know the story I won’t spoil everything that happens here as it will distract from the numerous nerve wracking sequences. During the first 90 minutes or so, the film is an absolute tour de force of suspense, and that’s a great credit to the filmmakers.
The story follows two sisters as they try to achieve their dreams in war-torn Syria. Yusra has big dreams of becoming an Olympic gold medalist, but her swimming bursts into flames when the country is under attack.
After coming to terms with Death, Sara and Yusra’s father agrees to send them to Germany for refuge and redemption. With Nizar as their guide and confidante, the two girls set out across dangerous seas, trusting shady human traffickers, all the way to Berlin in hopes of a better future.
For the men and women who make it to Germany, the real struggle for freedom begins as each of these refugees tries to start a new life for themselves. Of course, that means Yusra is back swimming and trying to make it to bigtime. But is that a step too far for her?
The Swimmers succeeds when it truly addresses the journey of the two girls, who are anxious to make it to Germany no matter what. As I said before, the film is packed with absolutely harrowing moments and a sequence aboard a boat at the beginning will have you on the edge of your seat. Unfortunately, those moments are mixed with a rather shrill tone that veers into uplifting sports drama territory. I’m careful not to spoil anything here, and I understand the direction the filmmakers were going, but that shrill tonal clash can feel like whiplash at times.
There are some fairly prevalent themes in this film, however, and the importance of Lulu, the bird that flaps around the room early out of its cage, is a particularly powerful symbol of the life Sara and Yusra long to have.
The Swimmers is also quite long and some might get impatient when the last act comes. This is where the film slips a bit, especially since the earlier sequences hit so hard.
However, the film has some pretty decent editing throughout and a few particularly creative shots. Watching the darkness consume our characters through a few individual flashback sequences (which basically play out like mild PTSD episodes) works really well to reflect on exactly how far these guys have come since the beginning of the film.
Sometimes known as the “European Migrant Crisis”, the actual timeline of events (which you can view here) does not do justice to the horror and dangers these men and women endured. It’s a tough journey that this film captures brilliantly.
Ultimately, The Swimmers is a thought-provoking and harrowing story, but also one that vacillates between a dark drama and a more uplifting, trope-filled sports drama. The result is a film that has both hot spots and cold spots; a film that can’t quite make up its mind and sounds a bit shrill. Nevertheless, it is still worth seeing.
Read more: The End of Swimmers Explained