Documentary Spotlight: "Long Distance Swimmer – Sara Mardini" - From Celebrated Humanitarian to “Criminal Mastermind”

Documentary Spotlight: “Long Distance Swimmer – Sara Mardini” – From Celebrated Humanitarian to “Criminal Mastermind”

In the midst of war-torn Syria, Sarah Mardini’s story begins in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus. A competitive swimmer trained by her father, a professional coach, Sarah and her (Olympic) swimmer sister Yusra Mardini were once hopeful athletes on the Syrian national swimming team. However, the Syrian Civil War reshaped their destinies.

In August 2015, the sisters were compelled to flee their homeland. They traveled to Lebanon, then to Turkey, then found themselves in a dangerously overcrowded dinghy only suitable for 6 or 7 people to Greece with 18 other migrants. When the motor failed and the dinghy started to fill with water in the Aegean Sea, Yusra, Sarah, and two others capable of swimming leapt into the water. For three harrowing hours, they swam, pulling the sinking boat towards Greece’s Lesbos island, saving the lives of everyone on board.

Settling in Berlin after a grueling journey through multiple countries, Sarah and her family sought asylum. But rather than retreat into the safety of her new life, Sarah plunged back into the fray, this time on Lesbos. In 2016, she joined Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), a Greek NGO, where she served as a lifeguard and translator, using her own harrowing experiences to comfort new arrivals.

Her commitment to helping fellow refugees, however, placed her in the crosshairs of legal controversy. In 2018, Sarah and two fellow volunteers were arrested and charged with espionage, aiding illegal immigration, and belonging to a criminal organization. These charges were vehemently contested by human rights organizations and were described by Amnesty International as unjust and a concerning trend towards the criminalization of humanitarian aid.

Despite spending 106 days in pre-trial detention in the high-security Korydallos prison in Athens, Sarah’s resolve remained unshaken. The trial, beginning in January 2023, drew international attention, underscoring the precarious balance between national security and human rights. Although the most severe charges were dismissed, the stigma and stress of legal persecution lingered.

Sarah Mardini’s actions earned her a place among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2023. Their story was dramatized in the film “The Swimmers” and chronicled in Yusra’s autobiography Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian – My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph. Yusra was a member of the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team (ROT) that competed under the Olympic flag at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She also competed in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo with the Refugee Olympic Team (EOR).

Sarah’s ordeal is captured in “Long Distance Swimmer – Sara Mardini,” directed by Charly Wai Feldman. This documentary, which started showing in Germany in March 2023, provides an intimate look at her trials and her activism and is now available to stream.

“This documentary begins when the fictionalized drama in The Swimmers ends. Unable to continue swimming, Sara returns to Lesvos as a search and rescue volunteer, helping other refugees brave the journey she once did. But the tides start to turn and in 2018 Sara’s humanitarian work ends abruptly when she is arrested and charged with several serious crimes, including human smuggling, money laundering and espionage. After more than three months in a high-security prison in Greece, she is released on bail and waits for a trial. If found guilty, she faces up to 20 years in prison.

Banned from Lesvos and waiting for news of the trial, she lives a surreal existence in Berlin. A student in a liberal arts college by day, escaping to techno clubs by night, and attempting to reconnect with her family after years apart. All this while her sister Yusra prepares for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics.

Shot over four years, the film follows Sara’s fight for freedom and illustrates Europe’s biggest shift of the last decade: from welcoming refugees to creating a hostile environment for those who dare to pull drowning people out of the water.”