Limbo: Humour and humanity central to new film about the refugee crisis

Limbo Poster (PA)
9:20am, Tue 27 Jul 2021
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Writer and director Ben Sharrock is expressing how “angry” he is at the overhaul of the refugee system recently announced by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel. His new film, Limbo focuses on a young Syrian musician who is awaiting the results of his asylum claim while living on a fictional remote Scottish island.

The day before our Zoom interview – with Sharrock and lead star, Amir El-Masry – headlines discuss a proposed new law that would make it illegal for refugees to travel to the UK through unofficial means, such as by crossing the Channel (reforms that have since cleared their first parliamentary hurdle). “With these new proposals being made, it just feels like this is part of this process of dehumanisation, othering, that refugees have been experiencing for years and years, which leads governments to make policies like this, because they’re not seeing refugees and asylum seekers as human beings; they’re not seeing their humanity,” says Sharrock, who hails from Scotland. “There’s this complete lack of empathy in how they’re making their asylum policy.”

Sharrock spent a year living in Syria in 2009 while studying Arabic and politics at Edinburgh University, and also shot a short film at the refugee camps in southern Algeria while at film school in 2013. He had a list of things he knew he wanted to avoid when making a film about the refugee crisis. Crucially he didn’t want to use a Western character as a vehicle to tell a story about refugees; the idea was to put the refugee characters front and centre. He was also keen not to sensationalise the subject matter.

Ultimately, Limbo is a deadpan comedy-drama told through the eyes of Omar (El-Masry), which looks at the challenges refugees face, but also feels full of hope. “I knew I wanted to use humour; that’s something that’s quite integral to my sensibility as a filmmaker,” says Sharrock, who picked up the prestigious Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film 2016 for his feature debut, Pikadero. “Then it was really a case of figuring out how to balance that humour and the use of drama. Somewhere along the way, this idea of a group of asylum seekers posted to a remote Scottish Island came up.” Sharrock calls it “an absurdist kind of concept” although the UK Government has actually considered it a potential reality.

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It’s also “quite common in Europe for asylum seekers to be sent to remote communities,” notes Sharrock. “It was wanting to tell a human story with the backdrop of the refugee crisis,” he continues. “So it’s almost making a film about refugees that isn’t really about refugees, it’s about people, and it’s about identity and family and loss.”

Thousands of miles from home, and separated from his family, Omar is burdened by a plaster cast on his arm, as well as the emotions that come with the loss of his former identity. It’s a powerful and moving look at guilt, regret and grief, but there’s plenty of humorous moments too, such as scenes featuring oddball locals, and misjudged ‘cultural awareness’ classes that Omar attends – all with the stunning Scottish landscape as a backdrop.

El-Masry admits it was a “daunting prospect to take on this role, because of the responsibility and the message it carries”. “But we were very lucky and fortunate to sit down with individuals who had a similar experience, and we spent a bit of time doing that research and getting into that character,” says the British-Egyptian star, who has starred in TV shows including The Night Manager and Industry. “It’s important to also remind ourselves that Omar is a human being like everybody else, who has feelings, hopes, fears, dreams.

“That was the main thing for us when we were talking about building the character. This is someone we want Western viewers to go, ‘I see myself in Omar’.”

El-Masry continues: “One of the most important things for me was to meet refugees who have made this journey to the UK, both those who had gone down the ‘official route’ through the UN programme, and those who had fled here through unofficial means. “In London I met with friends of friends who had made similar journeys and, whilst rehearsing in Scotland, I went along with Ben to a weekly meeting of single male refugees. One of the most fascinating things was their humour and nonchalant demeanour, as if they’d just been to the park rather than making a traumatic long-haul journey.

“The way they talked to us made me think that those who have gone through a lot often don’t outwardly display a sense of PTSD, but it could all be internalised.”

Members of the real-life Scottish refugee community appeared as extras in Limbo, playing members of Omar’s family. “It was amazing. Working with people that have been through the asylum system and have made their homes in Scotland as refugees was something we wanted to do very early on in the process,” says Sharrock. “Having the chance beforehand, myself and the actors, to spend time with them and involve the refugee community in the film felt like a no-brainer. It was really central to what we were trying to achieve.”

Limbo is released in cinemas from Friday, July 30.

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