‘Limbo‘ is a darkly humorous look at the refugee experience

‘Limbo‘ is a darkly humorous look at the refugee experience

Ben Sharrock in conversation — Ben Sharrock discusses his sophomore feature, which offers a witty take on life in Scotland, and a deep compassion for the migrant experience

It’s no surprise that the European refugee crisis has inspired so many filmmakers over the past decade: save for Brexit and, most recently, Coronavirus, it is one of the world’s most tempestuous and ever-present political crises. 

With titles like Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow and Waad Al-Kateeb’s For Sama, documentarians, perhaps unsurprisingly, led the charge in pushing Western audiences to contend with the realities of violence, displacement and dehumanisation faced by refugees, who are so often made to seem faceless and distant. 

In recent years, narrative fiction filmmakers have brought forth intriguing, formally subversive takes on the migrant crisis. In 2019, for example, Remi Weekes framed the hostile environment as a spectral terror in His House, which saw a pair of recent asylum seekers literally haunted by the ghosts of their war-torn past.

Director Ben Sharrock’s sophomore feature Limbo, out now on MUBI, cuts through the politics of the crisis with acidic wit and a style evocative of the most fanciful Wes Anderson films. It centres on two refugees, Omar (Amir El-Masri) and Farhad (Vikash Bhai) as they await the result of their asylum application on a remote Scottish island. Centrally, the film is about being stuck in place in a culture alien to one’s own, forced there by circumstances out of your control. 

No doubt, Limbo can be sold on its universal merits: central to Omar and Farhad’s relationship is perseverance through community and friendship. But its deep compassion for the migrant experience is, unequivocally, the film’s greatest asset. Huck chatted with Sharrock about his time in Damascus just before the Syrian Civil War, how that experience eventually fed into Limbo, and why he chose to set the film on a distant, misty island.

I’ve read that you spent some time in Damascus around the time of the Syrian Civil War…

Yeah, it was 2009, the year just before the Civil War started. We were the last group to go to Syria. My degree was in Arabic and Politics, and my third year study abroad was there, at Damascus University. 

I went out earlier than everyone else, out on my own, so I could spend time trying to integrate into society a little more outside of the university course. I joined the rugby team, and I got involved with theatre. That period of time was so interesting for me: I had mostly Syrian friends, and I tried to work on the Arabic I’d learned in my third year.

What was your motivation, to get really stuck in and assimilate?

I’ve always been really interested in other languages and cultures, and I’ve spent a lot of my adult years living in different countries. It felt like something I just had to do. It was quite scary at times, not because it was Syria or anything like that – I think it’s intimidating in any case, when you go somewhere new, and you’re trying to meet new people. It came, too, from a real desire to improve my Arabic and to understand the culture – when you’re there with the university you end up mixing with other university people, anyway. 

So you’re doing the classes, but you come out and you’re speaking English. But I got to go to Lebanon with the team, playing in this rugby tournament, you know, as the only white Western person. And there were groups from Egypt, from Lebanon; we played against the UN team, they’re all Fijian UN soldiers. They totally smashed it and won very easily.

What position were you playing?

I was playing as a flanker. It was brutal, we were playing in July, it was roasting hard. I sort of… really struggled. I don’t think our team did that well in the tournament. [Laughs.]

Between rugby, the theatre, and your other experiences in Damascus, did anything specific find its way into Limbo?

The first thing that comes to mind is how it led me to build the narrative in Limbo around the oud – the stringed instrument that Omar, Amir El-Masry’s character, plays throughout. During my time in Damascus I stumbled across this oud concert at the Citadel at night. It was all lit up, and the star was this very famous oud player called Charbel Rouhana. I remember sitting there, watching this guy play this instrument – I didn’t know what it was at the time – and I was just blown away by it. It just stayed in my head. 

All those years later, when I still had this real desire to write a story about the refugee crisis as a broad subject matter, that memory of being in Damascus and seeing Rouhana really stayed with me. Even that made me think: I wonder where he is? I wonder what happened to him? I wonder if he’s still there, if he left? Would he still be an oud player – because, you know, it’s not particularly popular in the UK or in Europe. 

Limbo, of course, deals with very timely political themes: particularly around the hostile environment, and the broader plight of refugees in the current moment. Did you come into writing the film with an explicit point to make, or did you focus more on putting together a strong story?

I generally go through a fairly academic process. It starts out with a lot of research. I was just doing as much as possible to really try and understand the subject matter. But what I’m looking for is a way to put all of that into the backdrop of the film, and to create a very humanist story – you don’t really feel the politics of it, you know, all of those things are stuck in the background. It’s more about the subtleties and nuances of the subject. 

I think, at some point along the way, it connected to me that it had to be about identity. In the time I spent working in refugee camps, we were working on a project on how the label of being a refugee affects identity. There I had this ‘click’ moment, that it wasn’t just this identity crisis, but more specifically around grief for the loss of identity. That’s where I really started to get it, because I could embed that grief into Omar’s emotional journey. 

The lion’s share of media coverage around the refugee crisis focuses on England, and particularly London. But you shot on Uist, a remote island off the coast of Scotland. Why set it there?

One of the main reasons is the way I look at my sensibility as a filmmaker, it’s very formalistic. I’m really interested in the language of cinema, and creating a language. So part of that was that an island, particularly a Scottish island, could be this metaphor for purgatory. 

I’ve never been anywhere that felt that remote. I was thinking about how the island’s images could feed into the cinematic language around Omar’s emotional journey – the use of long roads, the elements. 

The static shots…

Yeah, and with those static shots you’ve got to be hit by the image, that it means something, and it’s there for a purpose.

In the real world, too, some refugees are sent to the Scottish islands, but they already have refugee status. So it’s very different to what we see in Limbo, because they’re asylum seekers and can’t integrate into society in some way. I took from that reality and used it as a basis for people awaiting their asylum claims. Which is quite common in European countries, where asylum seekers are sent to remote communities.

Limbo is out now on MUBI.

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