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Egyptian athletes turn near-death experience into compelling documentary that highlights plight of refugees

DUBAI: In December 2017, Omar Samra – the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest – and Omar Nour, a renowned Egyptian triathlete, approached death like never before.

Their boat, on which they had paddled the Atlantic in a 4,800 kilometer race, capsized eight days after the start of their trip. One by one, their precautions and backup plans failed. Ultimately, it was luck, friendship, and willpower that kept them both alive.

When they were finally rescued by the only ship nearby – an experience so difficult that the rescue itself almost killed them – there was one thing they wanted to do first; before eating, before taking a shower, before they could finally rest, they were in desperate need of pens and paper. They knew that no matter what, the world needed to hear their story.

Their boat, on which they had paddled the Atlantic in a 4,800 kilometer race, capsized eight days after the start of their trip. (Provided)

“We refused to go to sleep until we had written down everything we could remember. We were so scared that once we went to bed our brains would start erasing the most painful things. We bounced back everything we had been through, every detail, so that we didn’t lose anything of what we had just experienced together, ”Nour told Arab News.

Almost four years later, their story is finally ready to be shared with the world in the documentary “Beyond the Raging Sea”, currently showing in cinemas across the Middle East. They didn’t know that telling their story would be a journey of adversity.

“Omar [Samra] and I didn’t know what we were going to do, ”Nour says. “When you’re a stranger trying to do something it’s very easy to get lost when you don’t understand all the moving parts. You can become easy prey for people who want to take advantage of you.

Samra was approached by Puerto Rican-born documentary maker Marco Orsini, who previously directed the documentaries “The Reluctant Traveler” (2009) and “Gray Matters” (2014). (Provided)

For such a deeply personal story, the right partner was essential. Just a month after their trip, Samra was approached by Puerto Rican-born documentary maker Marco Orsini, who previously directed the documentaries “The Reluctant Traveler” (2009) and “Gray Matters” (2014).

“I was compelled to tell the story of Omar Samra and Omar Nour because their story, frankly, is so fascinating. The first time we spoke, I sat there for four hours, listening to them each talk about what they had been through, each telling it to me separately, ”Orsini explains. “And while they were telling me the story, I, as the director, was getting so excited. Even though I didn’t have a lot of images, I knew I didn’t need them. What is needed to tell a good story is a good story, and these two not only had a good story, they knew how to tell a good story, each with very different personalities.

However, telling this story was not as straightforward as it seemed. Orsini had to not only earn the trust of the athletes, but keep it, balancing the fact that he was telling their deeply personal and traumatic story, with his role as a director, which meant the story ultimately became his.

For Samra and Nour, an essential part of the story that could never be cut was how their story was reminiscent of the refugee crisis. (Provided)

“I don’t think they really realize that this is also my project,” says Orsini, laughing. “They almost lost their lives and they’re so connected to it, and while filming them was brilliant, in the editing process we sometimes became both friends and foes. They just couldn’t understand why I was removing so many things that were important to them. I said, ‘Guys, we’ve got a four hour story that I have to cut into a watchable movie. You have to trust me. You gave me this project. You believed in me. You have to let me push to the end.

“The storyteller is Marco, we are not the storytellers. It’s his story, ”says Nour. “It was very difficult for Omar and I. Once we did, however, it became very clear that there was no better person for the job.

For Samra and Nour, an essential part of the story that could never be cut was how their story was reminiscent of the refugee crisis. Samra has long been a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, and therefore worked tirelessly to have her refugee program, UNHCR, sponsor their initial trip and ultimately the film, so that they could make sure that their story turns into something bigger.

The film minimizes what Samra and Nour went through, rather than sensationalizing it. (Provided)

“I knew there would be parallels between our crossing the Atlantic and the journey the refugees have to make, but I didn’t know at the time how close they would be,” Samra says. “The adventure really put everything into perspective. “

For this reason, even though much of the athlete’s story ended up on the floor of the editing room, the final section of the film is devoted to the story of a refugee named Louay Alzouki, who recounts with painful details his own heartbreaking journey to the other side.

Rather, the film minimizes what Samra and Nour went through, rather than sensationalizing it. Part of the reason immediate rescue has become so imperative is that Nour is a diabetic, who needs insulin injections to survive – injections that were lost when their boat capsized; although the movie never says so explicitly.

Omar Samra is the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest, and Omar Nour is a renowned Egyptian triathlete. (Provided)

Nour is by nature an optimist. (I once took a camping trip with him in which he was stung by a scorpion, a fact he calmly alluded to with a smile before driving himself to the hospital, with the scorpion held in a cup in his non-motor hand.) So part of the challenge for the two men was forcing themselves to relive the traumatic event in an authentic way – letting go of the smiles they had to learn to wear in order to transform the fear and agony deep into a fun adventure they can talk about at parties.

And even now that the movie is out, the story is not over. Nour and Samra have both fundamentally changed and both are doing their best to keep those changes positive.

“When you get so close to death, you want to make sure it becomes a blessing,” Samra says. “You want to use it to live your life in a different way. I now make different decisions in my life – in terms of my family, my job and the intensity of my activities. I probably still have a few adventures up my sleeve, but I’m not pushing it.

“I want to go back to why I started all of this to begin with, I want it to come from a deeper place. If I wake up one day and feel this fire in me, then I will definitely pursue it, but I like to slow down and focus on my family, ”he continues. “My wife passed away eight years ago and I have an eight year old daughter. When I almost let go of the ladder, let go of life, during this rescue, she was the one who gave me that last push. She kept me alive. I need to live for her.


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