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‘The Swimmers’ Star Manal Issa Was ‘Devastated’ by the Film’s ‘Orientalist Cliches’

The actress, who plays a migrant who flees Syria for Europe in the film, expressed regret about participating in the project.

THE SWIMMERS, from left: Manal Issa, Nathalie Issa, 2022.  ph: Ali Guler /© Netflix /Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Swimmers”

©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Many cinephiles had high expectations for “The Swimmers,” Sally El-Hosaini’s Netflix film about two Olympic swimmers and their harrowing experience migrating from Syria to Germany. But the film received largely negative reviews following its premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

IndieWire’s Ryan Lattanzio wrote: “At nearly two and a half hours, Netflix’s Syrian migrant drama ‘The Swimmers’ is a long sit that goes to extraordinary efforts — from a treacly score to constant reminders that its protagonists are, you know, swimmers — to try and make you feel good, or at least feel anything. The problem is that the audience isn’t taken by the same rah-rah spiritedness that director Sally El-Hosaini sets out to achieve, partially through overheated use of the pop-powered anthems of Sia. Who knew that radio-friendly hits like ‘Titanium’ and ‘Unstoppable’ could serve as potent theme songs for a drama about a pair of Syrian sisters who flee their war-bombed homeland for a better life in Europe?”

Now, one of the film’s stars has joined its list of detractors. In a new interview with Middle East Eye, Manal Issa expressed regret about participating in the project and criticized the film for its lack of racial nuance.

Issa, who plays one of the eponymous swimmers, says that she almost turned down the role when it was first offered to her.

“It was no different than similar refugee-themed projects I receive every year,” Issa said. “They talked to my agent after I turned it down to get me to audition for the film. I was still hesitant for multiple reasons: 1) It required extensive swimming lessons and 2) I felt uncomfortable that the role was not offered to a Syrian actor.”

The French Lebanese actress explained that she ultimately took the job because she was convinced that declining would not have led to the producers going in a more progressive casting direction.

“Most of the finalists for the role were from the Maghreb and Egypt. I finally decided to go for it because I felt that I was the one actress from the bunch that was closest to Sara,” she said. “I would’ve given the role up in a heartbeat had a Syrian been considered for the role, but that wasn’t the case.”

Issa said that she remains disappointed by how the film turned out, citing its heavily Western point of view and reliance on the English language.

“I was devastated by the excessive use of English dialogue and how superficial and cheesy it is,” she said. “It felt like one of those banal American films, filled with many orientalist cliches.”

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