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"The Swimmers" reviewed by Dan Webster

In August 2015, with Syria’s civil war becoming ever more threatening, Ezzat and Mervat Mardini faced a dilemma: Should they keep their family together, or let the two oldest daughters, Sarah and Yusra, attempt to find a way to get into Germany?

Since Yusra was younger than 18, there was a chance that, once there, she could apply to have her parents and younger sister emigrate as well. But the trek from Syria to Germany isn’t just difficult, it’s rife with danger.

Imagine being parents forced to make that decision. Yet the sad fact is that parents all over the world are right now in the same situation: Remain in place and chance increasing privation – and maybe worse – or let the most determined members of your family try for a better life?

That’s the situation the Mardinis faced, and it’s the story that director and co-screenwriter Sally El Hosami tells in her Neflix movie “The Swimmers,” with Ali Suliman and Kinda Alloush cast respectively as the parents and real-life sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa cast, respectively, as Sarah and Yusra.

None of the Mardinis wanted to leave their native country. Ezzat was a former champion swimmer. And as the coach of Sarah and Yusra, he had trained them well. Yusra in particular harbored Olympic hopes.

But the war was threatening, and reluctantly Ezzat gave permission for the girls to go. Which was only the beginning of their inspiring story.

If you watched any of the swimming competition at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, you may already know what happened. Yusra, the younger of the two girls, ended up competing and actually having some success – though El Hosami’s movie flirts a bit with that part of what actually transpired.

But no matter, it’s what led up to the Games that’s most interesting anyway. For not only the do the girls have to convince their father that they should go – no small feat – they have to discover how to do it. Funded by money that Ezzat had borrowed, and accompanied by a male cousin, Nizar (played by Ahmed Malek), they fly to Istanbul. Once there, their plan is to somehow find someone who can smuggle them into Europe.

Like thousands of refugees before them, they are taken advantage of, and the three – against all good sense – find themselves sharing space with a dozen other refugees on a rubber raft powered by a cranky outboard engine, heading into the rough waters of the Aegean Sea.

Their destination: the Greek island of Lesbos, where they hope to make even more connections that will get them to the German city of Hanover, where they have friends. Trouble is, only a short time after heading out, the raft’s engine quits – and Sarah and Yusra end up jumping into the water and swimming alongside the raft for hours until they finally reach shore.

Yet even that’s only part of the story – even if it is what would later attract attention from journalists. The sisters still had to get through Greece, avoid the Serbian police, fight off sexual assault, climb a fence topped with razor wire in Hungary, not to mention getting taken advantage of yet again.

And even when they do eventually arrive in Berlin, German protocol prevents them from proceeding on to Hanover. Living in refugee housing, they still have to struggle, not just against German bureaucracy in an effort to help the family they left behind but also to find a way to train so that Yusra can achieve her Olympic dream – which she does, eventually, through the kindness of a friendly German coach, Sven (played by Matthias Schweighöfer).

As should be obvious, “The Swimmers” does have a happy ending, which makes it appropriate for holiday viewing. Yet it’s no simple Hallmark Channel feel-good exercise. The acting, particularly of the Issa sisters, makes everything seem real: The sense of love that they convey, portrayed amid their occasional bouts of sibling resentment and rivalry, grounds everything.

No, the real Yusra didn’t win gold in Rio. Not even close. But through the talents of El Hosami, and the Issa sisters, “The Swimmers” makes it feel as if she might have. Or, in the end, achieved something even better: a future.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.
Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for Spokane7.com.