Jack Thorne hopes The Swimmers will challenge attitudes towards refugees

Ellie Iorizzo, PA Senior Entertainment Reporter

Sun, 9 October 2022 at 2:53 pm

Bafta award-winning scriptwriter Jack Thorne has said he wanted to be involved in a film about a Syrian refugee who competed at the Olympics because there needs to be a change in attitudes.

Netflix film The Swimmers is based on the inspirational true story of the Mardini sisters, who fled their war-torn home of Damascus in 2015 by boat and helped save the lives of their fellow refugees.

The film will show how just a year after their treacherous journey, younger sister Yusra competed in swimming events at the 2016 Rio Olympics as part of the Refugee Olympic team.

Arriving at the film’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Thorne told the PA news agency: “Yusra and Sara’s story is incredible and as a storyteller you’re pulled in and drawn into that, and it’s incredible.

“I think we’re in real trouble at the moment, in terms of the responsibility we feel as humans to the world.

“With refugees, that’s particularly stark at the moment, we’ve got a Home Secretary who is saying barbaric things about refugees and we need to change that.

“Film can do that, film can challenge people’s empathy, film can tell people to sit up, stand up, and particularly a film like this, which is aimed at younger people.

“If we get them and give them that feeling that they can change things, then what a good thing.”

Thorne said the film carries a “hugely important” message and hopes viewers walk away from watching it with a feeling of “responsibility”.

He said: “What a refugee looks like is not necessarily what you think a refugee looks like, people are coming with immense need and we need to help them.

“I’m actually a landlord for some Syrian refugees at the moment and that’s because the more I looked into this, the more I needed to do something, and if we all start doing our little bits then the world will change.

“I think I’m quite a political person and so yes, I am trying to tell political stories as elegantly as I can.”

Yusra Mardini attended the film’s premiere on Sunday sporting an Olympic ring necklace.

She told PA: “Every time I watch the teaser or the trailer I cry my eyes out, because I never expected that my story would be portrayed like that.

“Me and my sister are very ordinary girls that just did not give up I guess.

“I really hope that people would want to change a lot of things about refugees when they see the movie, they will be motivated to help, that the story will stay with them for a while to understand and try to help refugees all around the world.

“And of course, letting people know that these stories are still happening, that people are still taking those horrific journeys. Maybe we all can push governments to change some systems around it.”

Mardini added she turned down “lots of producers” who wanted to adapt her story for the screen, but co-screenwriters Sally El Hosaini and Thorne were “the dream team”.

She said: “It was just so hard to say no. We really trusted them and they did a great job.”

El Hosaini added: “Jack was just a pleasure to work with. Initially, I was just the director and he was the screenwriter, but he very quickly realised that I had so much I wanted to say that I ended up writing with him and it was just a lovely collaboration.”

Sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa, who play teenagers Yusra and Sara Mardini in the film, said they felt relief when the sisters said they liked it.

Nathalie said: “Everyday I had Yusra in my mind. We wanted it to be real. When they said ‘Hey, we loved it’, a weight was lifted.

Manal added: “They love it. I remember when they liked it we cried. This was the main responsibility, for them to be happy. As long as they’re happy, we’re happy.”

The film also stars Mardini’s swimming coach Sven Spannenkrebs, who said it was “a bit surreal” having actor Matthias Schweighofer play him in the film.

The Swimmers will launch on Netflix on November 23.

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