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

William Mullally

8 Oct 2021

In ‘Beyond the Raging Sea,’ Omar Samra and Omar Nour relive their failed attempt to row across the Atlantic Ocean

In December 2017, Omar Samra — the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest — and Omar Nour, a renowned Egyptian triathlete, came closer to death than they ever had before.

Their boat, on which they had been rowing across the Atlantic as part of a 4,800-kilometer race, had capsized eight days into their journey. One by one, their precautions and backup plans failed. In the end, it was luck, friendship, and strength of will that enabled them both to survive.

When they were finally saved by the only ship in the vicinity — an experience so difficult that the rescue itself nearly killed them — there was one thing they wanted to do first; before they ate, before they showered, before they finally got some rest, they were desperate for pens and paper. They knew that no matter what happened, the world needed to hear their story.

“We refused to go to sleep until we wrote down everything we could possibly remember. We were so scared that once we went to bed our brains would start to erase the things that were most painful. We bounced back and forth everything we had experienced, every detail, so that we wouldn’t lose any fact of what we had just gone through together,” Nour tells Arab News.

Nearly 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. Little did they know that getting their story told would be a journey filled with adversity of its own.

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

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

“I was driven to tell the story of Omar Samra and Omar Nour because their story, frankly, is so compelling. The first time we spoke, I sat there for four hours listening to them each talk about what they had been through, each telling me separately,” says Orsini. “And while they were telling me the story, I — as a director — was getting so excited. Even though I didn’t have much footage, I knew that I didn’t need it. What’s necessary for good storytelling 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.”

Telling that story was not as straightforward as it seemed, however. Orsini had not only to gain the athletes’ trust, but keep it, balancing the fact that he was telling their deeply personal, traumatic story, with his role as director, which meant the story ultimately became his to shepherd.

“I don’t think they actually realize that it’s my project as well,” says Orsini with a laugh. “They almost lost their lives and they're so connected to it, and while filming them was brilliant, in the editing process we became both friends and enemies at times. They just couldn’t understand why I was cutting out so many things that were important to them. I said, ‘Guys, we have a four-hour story that I need to cut into a watchable film. You have to trust me. You gave me this project. You believed in me. You've got to let me push it all the way to the end.’”
“The storyteller is Marco, we're not the storytellers. It's his story,” says Nour. “That was very hard for Omar and I to come to terms with. Once we did, though, it became very clear there was no better person for the job.”
For Samra and Nour, one essential element to the story that could never be cut was how reminiscent their story was of the refugee crisis. Samra has long been a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, so worked tirelessly to get, its refugee program, UNHCR, to sponsor their initial journey and, ultimately, the film, so they could ensure their story turned into something bigger.

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

Because of that, even though so much of the athletes’ story ended up on the cutting-room floor, the final section of the film is dedicated to the tale of a refugee named Louay Alzouki, who tells in painful detail his own harrowing journey to the other side.

If anything, the film downplays what Samra and Nour went through, rather than sensationalizes it. Part of the reason that immediate rescue became so imperative was that Nour is a diabetic, who needs insulin shots to survive — shots that were lost when their boat capsized; although the film never states this explicitly.

Nour is, by nature, an optimist. (I once went on 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-driving hand.) So part of the challenge for both men was forcing themselves to relive the traumatic event in a way that was genuine — dropping the smiles that they’ve had to learn to put on in order to turn deep fear and agony into a fun adventure they can talk about at parties.

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

“When you come so close to death, you want to make sure that 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 work, and the intensity of my pursuits. I still probably have a couple of adventures up my sleeve, but I’m not hustling it.
“I want to get back to the reason why I started all of this to begin with, I want it to come from a from a deeper place. If I wake up one day, and I feel that fire inside me again, then for sure I'm going to go after it, but I’m enjoying slowing down and focusing 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 that rescue, she was the one that gave me that final push. She kept me alive. I need to live for her.”

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