Scottish director Ben Sharrock made a splash in 2015 with his low-budget first feature, Pikadero, which took Best Film and Best Director awards at film festivals worldwide. His second attempt, Limbo, premiering at the 2020 Toronto Film Festival, is a delightful, cleverly managed comedy of manners, dealing with a group of refugees in the Hebrides, endlessly waiting for a response to their asylum request. The situation is handled sensitively, yet with a sharp and perceptive sense of humour that finds fun in unexpected places.
Sharrock became interested in the subject while still a student. He spent a year in Syria; then in 2013, while still in film school and working with an NGO, he made a short film in refugee camps in Algeria. At one point, he asked some of the children in the camp school to draw a picture of how they saw themselves. Sharrock recalls, “What they came up with was nothing to do with the fact that they were refugees.” Over the following few years, he held onto the idea of making a feature film dealing with refugees, but found the subject difficult, because “you always feel in danger of not being able to do justice to the subject.” Sharrock was less interested in doing a film on ‘the refugee crisis’ than on one about the effects of being a refugee on a person’s sense of self. The director recalls, “I became fascinated with the impact of being a refugee on one’s own identity.”
As he began writing the script for Limbo, Sharrock was determined to stick to his own style, including absurdist elements, in spite of the subject matter. This, he realised, went “against the representation of refugees in mainstream media,” which he feels tends to focus on the sensational, either pitying refugees or demonising them. In fact, Sharrock deliberately chose a group of male refugees as his central characters because, he says, “it’s the single male refugee that’s being demonised the most” in the media.
The ‘single male refugee’ at the centre of Limbo is Omar, a young musician who has fled Syria and applied for asylum in Europe. He and a small group of fellow refugees are living on a remote Scottish island, dealing with red tape as they wait for a response to their application. Omar has only one possession he values: his oud, a stringed instrument he was accomplished at playing, but which is now unavailable to him because he has one hand in a plaster cast – an unexplained injury meant to be associated with his escape from Syria. Omar, played by rising young actor Amir El-Masry (The Night Manager, Rosewater, Jack Ryan, Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker), is a perpetually deadpan character, who faces the good, bad, and bizarre with the same, comically pessimistic refusal to engage. El-Masry’s understated, subtly expressive acting is perfect for the character.
The film opens on one of a series of ‘cultural awareness’ classes offered by the local community to new immigrants. The classes are hilariously misconceived lessons, illustrated by short, wonderfully ridiculous role-playing scenes, meant to acquaint new residents with local customs. The idea that sexual assault is unacceptable is a recurring theme. These classes, and the English proficiency classes also offered, serve as a way to reiterate the gap between the refugees and the local residents. It also offers a way to indirectly refer to the refugees’ experiences; for example, a class on applying for work reveals the refugees’ complete lack of opportunity despite the class’s relentlessly upbeat tone; and when an English class offers a lesson on the phrase ‘used to,’ class members obligingly offer examples like, “I used to have a house, before it was blown up.”
On their own, Omar and his flatmates lead a fairly ordinary life as they wait for government approval. They work their way through the entire Friends box set and argue over details of the characters’ personal conflicts. They have informal singalongs. Omar discusses music with his friend Farhad (Vikash Bhai), a fanatical Freddy Mercury admirer, who tries to convince Omar to perform at the local pub’s open mic night. In a brief but poignant bit of dialogue, Omar worries that he may have forgotten how to play the oud; Farhad recalls a folk tale about a bird who forgot how to sing, and died of sadness. Omar’s phone calls to his parents are both sad, and a gently humourous example of miscommunication, as both Omar and his parents try to put on a brave face for one another. For all the genuine comedy, the film does not fail to recognise the characters’ discouraging situation.
Intolerance or bigotry against the asylum seekers is dealt with, but lightly and in context, using the same absurdist approach as much of the story. As Omar walks down a road, returning from the one available phone booth in town, four young locals in a car pull over to abuse him. They struggle to find the applicable insults before halfheartedly berating him as a terrorist and rapist; then, noting it looks like rain, insist on giving him a ride home. The local people are friendly in general, but the cultural divide is ever present, shown in small, funny glimpses: the fact that the word ‘ginger’ is included in lists of unacceptable racial slurs; or when homesick Omar, wanting to prepare a familiar Syrian dish, goes to the grocery store, to find the ‘spices’ department contains only ketchup, mustard, salt, and pepper; or even the prominent ‘Refugees Welcome’ banner on the local pub, which Omar regards with suspicion.
Limbo is filmed on the Scottish islands known as the Uists, North and South Uist, chosen by the director for their spectacularly desolate appearance. Director Sharrock revealed that he had considered other areas, preferably those more convenient for filming a movie, but concluded that “nowhere had the same purgatorial feel.” The landscape does, in fact, play a role of its own, embodying the refugees’ sense of being nowhere in particular – in Limbo – simply waiting. The arrival of winter heightens their sense of isolation still more, and is used to illustrate Omar’s struggle with loneliness, guilt over his family in Syria, and decreasing level of hope for better things. At the same time, he slowly begins to accept, and value, human contact, and to make peace with his situation.
The film does offer a happy ending of sorts, one which manages to consolidate Omar’s new home, his memories of Syria, and the love of music that has sustained him during his entire ordeal. It is a gently optimistic ending to a poignant but hilarious film, that presents the refugee experience as few other filmmakers could have done.