Long Distance Swimmer–Sara Mardini
(Germany, UK 88 min.)
Dir. Charly W. Feldman
Programme: Persister (North American Premiere)
A shocking, of-the-moment or fascinating premise for a documentary is no guarantee that the film will resonate. But find a compelling character for your focus and the chances for success increase exponentially. Fortunately for Charly W. Feldman, she spotlights the long-distance swimmer turned refugee activist Sara Mardini and you can’t take your eyes off her.
Sara and her sister Yusra were competitive swimmers before the war in Syria–bombs falling way too close to home–forced them to leave. They are among the thousands of refugees who have attempted to flee under dire circumstances in flimsy dinghies, helmed by profit-seeking smugglers through dangerous waters. When the Mardinis’ boat sprang a leak, the two swimmers, in an act of astonishing strength and courage, wound up pulling the boat to the Greek shore.
Their story became a sensation, and much more so when Netflix streamed the feature film The Swimmers about their flight, escape from a Greek refugee camp to Germany and Yusra’s journey to Rio to compete in the Olympics for the new Refugee team. That film concludes with an endnote that Sara returned to Greece to help refugees there and was arrested and charged with, among other things, people smuggling, while working for the search and rescue NGO Emergency Response Centre International. A 20-year prison sentence loomed.
Feldman picks up the story there, following Sara as she fights for bail and awaits her trial. Three main themes are threaded through this documentary. The film amplifies the outrage generated by the criminalization of humanitarianism. Mardini was not among those profiting from smuggling. She was engaged in activities often pursued by NGOs: giving warmth, food and clothing to terrified refugees washed up onto European shores.
A second strand pursues the relationship between the two sisters. Yusra is a more laid-back, user-friendly character while Sara is fierce and forthright. Crucially, Sara was so seriously injured during her escape from Syria that she had to stop swimming. Yusra, on the other hand, came back to her passion and made it to the Rio Olympics. So the seeds are there for a portrait of loving but very different sisters who share a traumatic history, but not the same repercussions. But the film is too vague on this theme, even as Feldman tracks media opportunities and photo shoots of the Mardini women that materialized in the years while Sara was awaiting her trial.
Finally, there is Sara herself. While waiting for the wheels of justice to grind towards her day in court, she becomes depressed, searching for what to do with herself. But she finds a purpose when she embarks on a speaking tour to raise awareness of the increasing threat to humanitarian efforts and she is a spectacular communicator. She is, in fact, more charismatic than the actor who portrayed her in the fiction film of her story.
Sara Mardini and the light she shines on a movement under siege make this a film worth seeing. You’ll be relieved to learn that since the film was shot, Greek authorities dropped the charges against her–although her long legal fight is far from over.