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In ‘Limbo,’ a refugee story from an authentic point of view. No white saviors needed

(L to R) Vikash Bhai, Kwabena Ansah, Amir El-Masry and Ola Orebiyi in "Limbo."
(Courtesy of Focus Features)

In March, U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel announced potential plans to send asylum seekers to processing centers farther afield — the Isle of Man or even Gibraltar. The report also suggested using remote Scottish islands as a place to house refugees — a recommendation that was immediately denounced by Scotland. It may sound equals parts inhumane and absurd to force refugees into isolation on an island, but that’s almost exactly the plot of Ben Sharrock’s second film, “Limbo.”

“It’s something I started five years ago and you think, ‘Is this going to be relevant?’” the writer-director says, speaking from Scotland over Zoom. “And here we are five years later and it’s as relevant as it has been. The concept for me from the beginning was knowing I was going to use absurdism and humor in the telling of the story about refugees. So the idea of sending asylum seekers to a remote Scottish island was really an absurdist concept, and now that’s potentially becoming a reality.”

The timing certainly wasn’t intentional. “Limbo,” which is now playing in U.S. theaters via Focus Features, has seen its international rollout unexpectedly delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was an official selection of the canceled 2020 Cannes Film Festival and premiered, instead, at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It was recently nominated for a BAFTA Award for outstanding British film but won’t have its official U.K. release until July.

The film, which follows Omar, a Syrian musician waiting in a small community for the results of his asylum request, is the result a decade of work by Sharrock, whose debut film, “Pikadero,” came out in 2015. Sharrock originally considered making it as a short film while in film school, inspired by his time living in Damascus before the Syrian civil war, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he found the right entry point into the story.

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“I knew I wanted to make a film about the subject matter, and what I was looking at specifically was the representation of refugees in the media,” the director explains. “On one side there was a demonizing of refugees, which is de-humanizing, and on the other side we had the pitying of refugees, which emerged a little bit later based on the sheer amount of coverage of the refugee crisis. And that also became de-humanizing.

“I felt like there was this gap in the middle. ... It started out with this mission to humanize the refugee experience and to write a story about refugees that isn’t about the refugee crisis, in a way. It’s just human beings in the center of it.”

‘Limbo,’ a festival favorite that deserves a larger audience, focuses on a young Syrian musician and other refugees on a remote Scottish island.

Sharrock cast British Egyptian actor Amir El-Masry as Omar after seeing a photo of him online — something El-Masry only discovered recently — and was struck, during the actor’s audition, by his ability to convey Omar’s vulnerability. El-Masry studied the oud — Omar’s chosen instrument, which he hauls with him all over the island — and worked with a dialect coach to give his Arabic the right accent. At first, the actor wasn’t sure he wanted to play a refugee, but Sharrock’s balance of absurdist humor and genuine heart convinced him this was a necessary telling.

“I was a little tentative to take on anything that has anything touching on the refugee crisis,” El-Masry admits, speaking from London. “But with ‘Limbo,’ honestly, I’ve never laughed and cried at the same time from reading a script. It’s so warm and inviting, and it touches on themes about family and identity and loss of identity. Something that anybody can go through at any given time. It just so happens that this man is fleeing his country out of necessity. I loved that he puts Omar into the forefront of the narrative — there isn’t a Westernized character who is showing Omar a better way of living.”

“A decision that was very important to me early on was to have the refugees front and center of the film,” Sharrock adds. “Often with films about refugees we have a white, Western character who is used as a vehicle to tell the story because of this idea that maybe we would relate to the Western character. But it was important to me that we could relate directly to the refugee characters regardless of them being refugees.”

The film shot in the winter of 2018 in the Uists, a group of islands in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, and several of the locals, as well as a group of actual refugees, served as extras. It was an extremely challenging shoot, with the winds reaching gale force almost daily and the crew forced to hike the gear into several locations not accessible by car. But those bleak, beautiful landscapes play heavily into the film, especially as the camera lingers over Omar as he waits and waits for word from the government. The slow, methodic pacing was purposeful and built into Sharrock’s script.

“I wanted the audience to feel that sort of stasis that the characters onscreen are feeling,” Sharrock says. “But you don’t want the audience to get bored, so it has to be that balance of it being deliberately slow — and capture that feeling of limbo — but where the audience sticks with these characters on their journey.”

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Amir El-Masry and director Ben Sharrock on the set of "Limbo."
(Saskia Coulson / Focus Features)

“It was tough,” El-Masry adds of the monthlong shoot. “But I think it was necessary and useful for me personally. To even feel an ounce of what someone would have felt in real circumstances. I think if we were in a heated studio, you wouldn’t have been able to get the right feeling. It wouldn’t feel as authentic. We didn’t want to feel that level of comfort when you’ve got such an important film.”

The group of refugees around Omar in “Limbo” is based on real people and real stories, although none of the characters were created after one specific individual. Sharrock met with refugees, spoke with his friends in Syria and drew on as much research and firsthand documentation as he could find. Omar’s career as an oud player is also connected to several true stories. Sharrock notes that “the characters are an amalgamation of lots of different things, but one of the things about the film, even though it’s sort of absurd, is that in some way or another it’s based on reality.”

“Limbo” is not political, nor does it emphasize the laws and immigrations processes in the U.K. Instead, it asks for empathy for its characters. It’s funny, almost shockingly so, and the film allows the viewer to stay with Omar throughout his experience, even when those moments are uncomfortable or jarring. In the end, maybe the audience has connected with a refugee on a human level in a way that expands their perception of what it means to flee your home country and why someone might do that.

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“We’re not hitting the audience on the head with the message,” El-Masry says. “He happens to be a man who is fleeing his country, but he’s also a man who is losing his identity and struggling with that, and I think a lot of people can connect to that. Ben’s not trying to force-feed anything. And then, at the end, you can reflect and think, ‘Oh gosh, maybe I need to do something about this.’ He’s giving you that choice, rather than forcing it down your throat. What better way to send that message across?”


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