Netflix Refugee Drama ‘The Swimmers’ to Open Toronto Film Festival

The Working Title and Netflix drama The Swimmers, about real-life sisters on an inspiring odyssey as refugees from war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics, will open the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 8 at Roy Thomson Hall.

Lebanese actresses and real-life sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa play sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini in the film from writer and director Sally El Hosaini, who co-wrote the script for The Swimmers with Enola Holmes scribe Jack Thorne.

The sisters, fleeing their home in Damascus, 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’m ecstatic. What an honor and privilege to open TIFF with the inspirational true-life story of the Mardini sisters. 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 said in a statement about her film’s glitzy red carpet premiere at Roy Thomson Hall.

Alongside the Issa sisters, the ensemble cast includes Ahmed Malek, Matthias Schweighöfer, Ali Suliman, Kinda Alloush, James Krishna Floyd and Elmi Rashid Elmi. Canada in late 2015 began welcoming Syrian refugees in large numbers to resettle in Toronto and other cities.

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,” Toronto Film Festival CEO Cameron Bailey said in his own statement.

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The Swimmers is set to launch on Netflix worldwide this year. The film is produced by Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, alongside Ali Jaafar and Tim Cole. And Stephen Daldry is executive producing.

El Hosaini’s directing debut My Brother the Devil premiered at Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Cinematography: Dramatic prize.

Toronto returns for a 47th edition to run Sept. 8 to 18 that will be in-person, with Hollywood stars on red carpets and in theaters after two years of disruption from the pandemic. TIFF earlier announced that Viola Davis’ The Woman King, Netflix’s follow-up to Rian Johnson’s 2019 movie Knives Out starring Daniel Craig, Sanaa Lathan’s feature directorial debut On the Come Up, Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy and Clement Virgo’s Brother will also have world premieres at the festival.