This year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival will kick off with Sally El Hosaini’s depiction of Olympian Yusra Mardini and her sister Sara’s heroic swim from war-torn Syria to Greece. “The Swimmers” will screen as TIFF’s Opening Night Gala Presentation September 8 at Roy Thomson Hall, a press release announced.
The film is based on the true story of the Mardini sisters, who, in 2015, saved themselves and the other refugees on their dinghy by jumping into the freezing Aegean Sea and swimming the boat to safety. The Mardinis, both competitive swimmers, had fled Syria and were en route to the Greek island of Lesbos when the dinghy began to sink. The sisters eventually settled in Berlin, where Yusra met a swimming coach who trained her for the Olympics’ inaugural Team Refugee. Her story came to light when she swam at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and won her qualifying heat.
El Hosaini wrote “The Swimmers” with Jack Thorne (“His Dark Materials”), and Netflix is the distributor. Real-life sisters Manal Issa (“Memory Box”) and Nathalie Issa (“My Favorite Fabric”) star as Sara and Yusra, respectively.
“I was deeply moved by the story of these two sisters and wowed by the storytelling,” TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey stated. “’The Swimmers’ was the very best kind of surprise when we saw it this summer — an exciting, epic journey and the arrival of an important filmmaker. I’m thrilled that audiences in Toronto will be the first to discover Sally El Hosaini’s remarkable film, and that this year on our Opening Night we can honor everyone who risks everything to reach a better, safer life.”
“I’m ecstatic. What an honor and privilege to open TIFF with the inspirational true-life story of the Mardini sisters,” El Hosaini said. “A city as multicultural and diverse as Toronto is the perfect place to debut our film that elevates the visibility and voice of refugees, reminding us that the human capacity to survive is stronger than most of us know.”
El Hosaini received Berlinale’s Label Europa Cinemas prize and London Film Festival’s Best British Newcomer award for her feature debut, “My Brother the Devil,” a drama about British Arab brothers growing up in gangland London. She has also helmed three episodes of “Babylon.”
TIFF will take place September 8-18. Other premieres on our radar include Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King,” Sanaa Lathan’s feature directorial debut, “On the Come Up,” and Lena Dunham’s “Catherine Called Birdy.”