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Courtesy of Mubi

Limbo: the dark comedy about a Syrian refugee stuck in Scotland

Director Ben Sharrock and actor Amir El-Masry discuss the BAFTA-nominated film which asks viewers to humanise asylum seekers amid ongoing anti-refugee policies

Even though Limbo is a film about stillness, it’s undoubtedly moving. Written and directed by Ben Sharrock, the hilarious, heartbreaking comedy is a tonally ambitious depiction of a group of asylum seekers stranded on a fictional Scottish island. Meanwhile, the camera, precise and deliberate, is nearly always in a fixed position, silently capturing the cruel circumstances of its characters.

Crammed into a boxy 4:3 frame, Omar (Amir El-Masry) is a Syrian refugee with nowhere else to go; softly spoken and eager to remain out of trouble, he’s waiting to hear if he’s allowed to stay in the country. In his left palm, he grips onto a case for his oud, the bulky, stringed instrument that brought him minor fame in Syria; however, his right arm is wrapped in a bandage, meaning that the oud, which he thus cannot play, is more a sentimental souvenir of the past. Or, as his friend Farhad (Vikash Bhai) puts it, Omar is really dragging around “a coffin for his soul”.

In either a grim coincidence or a sign of how often the Conservatives push forward despicable policies, my three-way Zoom call with Sharrock and El-Masry in early July is the day after Priti Patel announced the Nationality and Borders Bill – a piece of legislation that will criminalise border-crossing and, according to experts, “endanger those it claims to protect”.

“It’s pretty insane that this just came out yesterday,” Sharrock sighs. “Obviously the (notion of sending refugees to Ascension Island) has come up, but there’s also the idea of housing asylum seekers on disused oil rigs and ferries offshore. Ultimately what Limbo wants to achieve, and what we want to achieve, is for people to engage with the subject matter. The more people that engage with the subject matter, and the more things that humanise the refugee crisis as a subject, and humanise refugees, then that’s useful.

“These policies come out of dehumanisation and othering. Governments are shown a lack of empathy towards refugees and asylum seekers, and it makes them feel that they can create policies and propose policies that curtail their human rights.”

Fortunately, Limbo, a deeply humanistic work of art, is easily one of 2021’s finest, funniest films. After its world premiere at Cannes was cancelled last year due to the pandemic, Limbo earned acclaim on the festival circuit and was nominated at the BAFTAs for Outstanding British Film. Soulful, poetic, and downright esoteric when least expected, Sharrock’s second directorial feature manages to be highly watchable despite what audiences may expect from a story about asylum seekers. While Aki Kaurismäki directed two empathetic comedies about the topic in Le Havre and The Other Side of Hope, it’s otherwise rare for a movie to depict refugees as real people capable of cracking jokes.

“That’s the whole idea of narrowing and bridging the gap between the West and the East,” says El-Masry, a Cairo-born British-Egyptian actor whose credits include Industry and The Night Manager. “It’s making sure that we’re very relatable in that sense. What better way to do that than by using humour to break the ice?” He adds, “I’ve never experienced an ounce of what Omar has, so I’m very privileged… but when you strip it to its bare bones, he’s just a human being like anybody else. That allowed me to tap into it.”

“I’ve never experienced an ounce of what Omar has, so I’m very privileged… but when you strip it to its bare bones, he’s just a human being like anybody else. That allowed me to tap into it” – El-Masry

As the first film to ever shoot on the Uist Islands, Limbo utilises the location’s sparse, lonely landscapes to establish pathos and a metaphorical outdoor prison for its ensemble. Sharrock’s screenplay, a blend of philosophical truths and absurd one-liners, focuses on four asylum seekers sharing a safehouse: Omar feels tortured by the guilt of knowing his brother remained in Syria; Farhad, while namedropping Freddie Mercury, alludes to reasons why he’s unwelcome in Afghanistan; Wasef and Abedi, the former Nigerian and the latter Ghanaian, escaped from Libya on a boat that caught fire. “I’m telling you,” Abedi whispers, “I have already been to hell.”

Yet Limbo, when appropriate, indulges in wilful silliness, whether it’s the “Culture Awareness 101” classes (one lesson is titled “Sex: is a smile an invitation?”) or Farhad awakening Omar with a live, wing-flapping chicken. Often, Sharrock’s sensibilities are reminiscent of the dry, deadpan wit of Kaurismäki, Jim Jarmusch, and the Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman. Like the mute E.S. protagonist of Suleiman’s comedies, Omar is a silent observer who, with the subtlest of facial expressions, mines humour from his idiosyncratic surroundings.

According to Sharrock, Suleiman’s 2009 feature, The Time That Remains, was one of two films, along with Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit, that made him want to be a director. “What I got from Elia Suleiman was how much could be communicated through composition and the way the camera holds onto (his E.S. character), and that we see the world play out through his perspective,” Sharrock explains. “I would naturally write scenes where Omar would be part of these absurd circumstances, and as the audience, we would experience it from his perspective as well. In that sense, there’s definitely a call-back to Suleiman – and also Buster Keaton. The most common reference point of Elia Suleiman’s work is Buster Keaton.”

“We had two weeks of rehearsal just to get the choreography right,” El-Masry notes. “Everything is so purposeful and well-placed in every shot. But with the emotions – sometimes you can’t gauge how big you are when the camera is so close-up. Having a buzzword like ‘Buster Keaton’ enabled me to know that this was a time to literally do nothing, and just think and feel – and the rest will be emoted realistically.”

Though it may not be guessable from Sharrock’s filmography – his 2015 debut, Pikadero, was shot in Spain and is entirely in the Basque language – the writer-director is a white man from Scotland. When studying Arabic and Politics at Edinburgh University, Sharrock spent a year living in Damascus just before the Syrian Civil War and, upon returning, wrote his dissertation on Muslim representation in movies. Early in his filmmaking career, the Scotsman stayed in refugee camps in southern Algeria to work with an NGO and eventually felt impassioned to write Limbo.

However, I bring up the case of Lena Dunham who, a few years ago, received widespread criticism when she was commissioned by Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams to write a screenplay about Doaa Al-Zamel, a Syrian refugee who survived a shipwreck. Was the backlash against Dunham unfair? If Dunham had spent a year living in Damascus and did an undergraduate degree in the subject matter, would that make it OK?

“I’ve got to say something,” El-Masry interrupts. “Sorry to butt in, but that frustrates me as a person, because Ben is more than well-equipped to tell this story, more so than someone who is Middle-Eastern like myself who hasn’t done the research, who hasn’t spent that amount of time to actually care about this subject matter. And also, the proof was in the pudding when we went to Egypt, to Cairo. I was nervous for myself, doing a different accent – we would be under immense scrutiny if it wasn’t accurate.

“And everyone thought Ben was Middle-Eastern. They thought there’s no way someone white or Scottish directed this film, because of the amount of research and the little Arab phrases he put in. Going into something, it shouldn’t be based on the colour of your skin. It should be based on your lived experience on that subject matter.”

“It’s the job of a writer or a filmmaker to make things go beyond their own lived experience. If people only make films or write things from their own experience, it would have a very negative impact on the creative arts” – Sharrock

Sharrock declines to comment on the Lena Dunham controversy, but adds, “Some of these questions are important and valid, because historically there have been negative depictions of other cultures made by, often, a white western person. But in my case, I think to say I’m a ‘white Scottish guy’ is very reductive because I’ve got a very specific experience in this area. It’s the job of a writer or a filmmaker to make things go beyond their own lived experience. If people only make films or write things from their own experience, it would have a very negative impact on the creative arts.

“But what these questions are doing, and the positive effect they’re having, is they’re making people take more responsibility for the stories they tell. Yes, people can tell stories that aren’t their own, but it comes with a lot of responsibility.”

In Pikadero, the power of storytelling means that its protagonists, who otherwise don’t speak English in the film, bond over Hollywood movies and quoting from The Godfather; in Limbo, Omar discusses Rambo with his mother over the phone, while Farhad binges pirated DVDs of Friends. In both films, characters also share dreams of playing for elite football clubs – the sport, like Ross and Rachel’s romance, unites strangers from different cultures.

At one point, a clip from Friends appears on the TV. In order to get the rights from Warner Bros, Sharrock wrote an email to David Schwimmer and attached the script. So was Schwimmer hoping for a role? “No,” Sharrock says. “He was just completely willing and happy to help. He was really amazing. There was no way we would have got the rights to have Friends in the film without David Schwimmer. And he quite recently watched the film. He loved it. Amir got a message from him on Instagram.”

“It’s true!” El-Masry confirms. “It’s real!”

While Jennifer Aniston is yet to deliver her verdict, El-Masry’s depiction of Omar is certainly profound and devastating. Sometimes the character will communicate total, utter heartbreak without moving a single muscle – unless you count the tear rolling down his cheek. In a transcendent finale, Omar plucks his oud’s strings with such magnitude that the 4:3 aspect ratio widens and fills the laptop screen – and, yes, Sharrock is insistent that I rewatch it in a cinema.

“The hardest part is literally knowing how to hold it,” El-Masry says of the oud. “It’s very different to how you hold a guitar. I had to cram seven years of expertise in two months (with teachers). There was no escaping that last shot, that wide, that pan. I was very scared. I was pulling my hair out every few seconds, being like, ‘I’m going to have to do it.’”

While El-Masry has appeared in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Amazon’s Jack Ryan series, they’ve been small parts. In a racist industry, the actor has never been able to play, for instance, a romantic lead, but Limbo is starting to correct that. “I’ve been sent romantic comedies, I guess because of the success of this film,” El-Masry says. “I’ve had more exposure, and people can see my range. What it boils down to is having these conversations, and talking about representation. And quite rightly so. We should always have these conversations when we feel that something isn’t quite right in statistics, or something isn’t accurately representing the modern day.”

Curiously, Alejandro González Iñárritu recently announced that his next film will also be called Limbo. “It keeps coming up on my Twitter,” Sharrock laments. “I’m like: why? Hopefully he’ll change his mind.” Whatever Sharrock does next – and whether it’s called Birdman in revenge – will surely be fascinating. But for Limbo – his one, not Iñárritu’s – the hope is it’ll spark further conversations, especially in the wake of Priti Patel’s Borders Bill.

Sharrock explains that the right-wing media’s coverage of refugees is very obviously dehumanising, but the opposite kind of journalism can have the same effect if it’s simplistic pitying. “The purpose was to go against both sides of that,” the director says. “The demonising of refugees – it’s very clear for a liberal left-leaning person that that’s dehumanising. But I think what wasn’t clear was the well-intentioned left-wing approach to the refugee crisis quite early on, when it became prevalent in the media.

“More than anything, what that’s about is sensationalising the refugee crisis. You’re getting a snapshot of an image of something often related to the journey, or a snapshot of a headline, and often this was related to numbers and statistics. Really what the film was about was to move beyond all of that, and to make an attempt to humanise the refugee experience – and, in a way, by telling a story about refugees that isn’t about refugees. It’s just about people. It’s about family, identity, loss, and all of these things that we can all relate to.”

Limbo is out in cinemas on July 30