Ben Sharrock on the making of his film, Limbo, a darkly comic look at asylum seekers' Scottish experience

Ben Sharrock’s film Limbo, is not another ‘refugee film’, a tale of hopelessness and heartbreak, that flashes up the standard images of war torn homelands, detention centres and inflatable boats washing up on European shorelines.

Director and writer Ben Sharrock at this year's British Academy Film Awards in Edinburgh when Limbo was nominated for outstanding debut and outstanding British Film.

Those might feature in the backstories of the characters, and the effects of trauma are there, but alongside is deadpan humour and a darkly comic realism in this satire filmed in the Hebrides and on our screens this week.

Cutting through demonisation and questioning our attitudes towards refugees in the West, it shines a light on the people and stories behind the headlines to appeal to everyone and highlight the similarities between ‘them’ and ‘us’ as it follows a group of new arrivals on a mythical Scottish island, as they hope to follow their dreams of a better life.

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Written and directed by Ben Sharrock (Pikadero), Limbo stars BIFA-nominated best actor Amir El-Masry (Industry, Jack Ryan, The Night Manager), along with Vikash Bhai, Kwabena Ansah, Ola Orebiyi and Sidse Babett Knudsen, among an international cast with actors from British, Egyptian, Nigerian, Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi backgrounds as well as members of the real-life Scottish refugee community in Scotland, Hebridean locals and our very own Sanjeev Kohli.

Following the story of Omar, played by Amir El-Masry, a Syrian refugee and musician who has journeyed from his homeland carrying his oud, the stringed instrument in which he excels, but no longer plays, it was nominated for Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut at the 2021 BAFTA Film Awards, selected for the Cannes and San Sebastian film festivals and named as a BAFTA Breakthrough 2020.

For Sharrock, making Limbo has been a long evolving process, spanning over a decade since the first seeds of the idea were planted up to its release of the film to arriving at the point of starting to make it. In the meantime he won several awards for his 2016 feature debut Pikadero, focusing on a couple searching for love among the economic downturn in Spain, shot entirely in the Basque language, and two BAFTA New Talents for Best Drama and Best Writer for Patata Tortilla in 2015.

“Limbo started with me living in Syria during my undergraduate degree in Arabic and Politics at Edinburgh University,” says 33-year-old Sharrock, who lives in Edinburgh, “when I spent my third year in Damascus. I made friends in Syria and some have become asylum seekers - I’ve got a friend that made it to Istanbul and is stuck there wanting to make it to Europe, and others stuck in the Scottish asylum system, one who had been waiting for asylum for six years and at one point became homeless in the process of waiting,” he says.

After specialising in Middle Eastern cinema and doing a dissertation on Arab and Muslim representations in American Cinema, on graduating Sharrock went on to film school, then later joined an NGO working in refugee camps in southern Algeria.

“We were working on a project about identity and about how the label of being a refugee affects it. In schools we spoke to children and got them to draw pictures of themselves in their homes and with their families and none of it was to do with them being refugees. They didn't see themselves as refugees. This differed from how we are shown refugees and particularly their journeys, and this really struck and stayed with me.”

With an idea for Limbo in his head, Sharrock looked at articles, books, documentaries and films to do with the refugee crisis, and also spoke to those who have been through the asylum system and to organizations that work with refugees on a daily basis.

“What kept coming up was this idea of identity, and that's when for me, Omar's journey really became about him struggling with grief for what he regarded as the loss of his former identity.”

“At some point I had to let go of all that research, particularly with the style of film I was making, which isn't social realism, but something looking at the refugee crisis from an oblique angle and trying to do something different with it. So I stepped away and tried to put myself in the film, which is the point of it, that we're relating to the people on screen, regardless of them being refugees, that we can connect with them regardless of our backgrounds and have things in common with them. So hopefully the film has a sort of universality to it.”

Vikash Bhai as Farhad and Amir El-Masry as Omar in Limbo, Sharrock's feature film set on a mythical Hebridean island. Farhad is holding Omar's oud, the traditional Syrian musical instrument he brought with him on his journey.

The result is a film that is the meeting point between the absurd and reality, where asylum seekers are portrayed as like us, with hopes and heartbreaks, stripped of the dehumanising stereotypes that filter a Western lens.

“The film is a world that has one foot in reality and another in the surreal and absurd, and a balance of absurdity but also social realism, so it's still real and authentic and truthful, but is not perhaps what we're used to seeing from stories about the subject matter. It uses absurdist deadpan humor and pivots and uses drama as well, finding a kind of tonal balance,” says Sharrock.

While there’s realism in the storyline, the language of metaphor is marked in Limbo. Filmed in the Uists, although the island portrayed is definitely mythical, the Scotland we see is not the tourist board tartan and turquoise seas on a sunny day ideal, but a more familiar landscape battered by wind, rain and snow, in which various worthy and weird inhabitants co-exist with the refugees.

“The way in which I see films and want to make films, is that the form is really important to me,” says Sharrock. “The cinematic language is embedded in the style of storytelling, which is metaphorical, so the island is a real Hebridean island in one sense, but in another is actually a metaphorical island, a purgatorial island.”

Asylum seekers spending their days in Limbo, awaiting letters to tell them if their applications have been accepted: Vikash Bhai as Farhad, Kwabena Ansah as Abedi, Amir El-Masry as Omar and Ola Orebiyi as Wasef.

“Elements of the island, the seasonal changes, the long roads that go on forever towards the horizon, that’s what kind of stuck out to me when I visited Uist for the first time and the film is about the journeys of these people, for Omar it’s the road he’s traveling, both physically but also emotionally in terms of him struggling with his identity.”

“So I wanted to put as much of that as possible into every single frame of the film.”

Uist was chosen to represent the island, in part because Sharrock was there when he was writing some of the script and it became interwoven with it, and also because the location search to find somewhere easier to shoot found nowhere could replicate it.

“It became apparent Uist had this incredibly unique quality that captured what I was trying to do, what was in my head, and what I felt I could feed into the language of the film.”

However, Sharrock is at pains to point out that the locals depicted in the film aren’t those on Uist, although the real-life islanders embraced the 80-strong crew, letting them film in their homes, providing boats and dogs and sheep.

“This has to be quite clear, that it isn't Uist in the film,” says Sharrock. “It is a fictional space, a purgatorial island rather than anywhere real, and the locals in the film are not locals on Uist. They are characters from a variety of places such as Helga and Morris who are English and Danish and deliver cultural awareness classes, having made their homes on this fictional island, and it's more about the pan-European response to the refugee crisis with the attitudes that we have, rather than specific to a Scottish Island.”

Limbo film stills

Much of the wry humour in the film comes from the cultural clash of European sensibilities and those of the refugees, bemused by the cultural awareness classes or the open mic night at a community centre.

While the island is metaphorical and there are more in the film, some things are also exactly what they appear to be, such as the oud, and a chicken, as Sharrock explains.

“The oud is a traditional Syrian musical instrument, and is one of the central metaphorical threads. It embodies Omar's identity and soul and he carries it around all the time. Made from walnut, which is indigenous to Syria, it’s his grandfather's and has an etching on it which is the garden of his family home in Damascus, so it’s connected to his home, family, culture and country. His friend Farhad says he’s carrying a coffin for his soul as the case was deliberately made in the shape of a coffin, and that's related to his grief for the loss of identity. When he comes alive again, it’s through the music and his talent as a musician, through his oud.”

And the chicken? Or chickens, for there were two playing the role of feathered friend to the character of Farhad, from Afghanistan.

“One was the stunt chicken and one was there for the more emotional scenes,” says Sharrock.

“The chicken is part of Farhad’s character and journey. It becomes a comfort that helps him get through this period on this island, and I think it’s really touching at the end when he thanks it for helping him get through. He has found something from home in Scotland.”

The chickens didn’t have it all their own way in terms of hogging the camera, as the island’s sheep managed to make their presence felt too.

“The sheep were good actors as well,” laughs Sharrock, “but they were trouble behind the scenes. We had guys from a snow company to spread fake snow on the landscape and one of the sheep jumped and knocked one of them over, so they were quite wild at times.”

In terms of reaction to the film, including from asylum seekers, Sharrock is pleased at the positive response and hopeful it will make people ask questions about how we in Europe view and treat those who find themselves here.

“We’ve had an amazing, strong response from people of all different backgrounds,” he says, “from refugees that have been through the asylum system, people from Syria, it’s been great. I think one of the main things is that it’s about being able to humanise the refugee experience in a different way. To spend this hour and 40 minutes with these characters, and see or relate directly to them, regardless of their backgrounds or the fact they're refugees and no matter what your background is, to see part of yourself in them,” he says.

“Yes the film is about refugees, but it's really about family and identity and loss, all of these things we can all relate to and we can all connect with. If it can do anything to humanise refugees, I think that's realistically what the film can do. Unfortunately a lot of the UK Government policy around asylum seekers - Priti Patel has announced they're making further progress with the idea of offshore asylum centres in Ascension Island, on ferries and abandoned oil rigs - comes out of a process of dehumanisation. So the more we see them as people like us that have met with very unfortunate and tragic circumstances, maybe we can see more responsible asylum policies where we have more empathy.

“This is not a refugee crisis, it's a crisis of empathy, and if this film can help to make people sympathise or empathise with refugees and see their humanity, maybe that could have a positive impact.”

Sharrock is interested in tackling serious political or socio political subject matters using absurdist humor and the human story, something he also did in his first film Pikadero, about the economic crisis in Spain and how that affects young people looking for love.

“I want to grow and develop as a filmmaker and not just do the same thing over and over again,” he says, “but there are certain things that are specific to my style and sensibility as a filmmaker. I think there’s a sort of natural progression.”

“Also Pikadero was made with basically no money at all, so having a budget makes a difference. Limbo is my first funded film.”

As for his next project, it’s in the early stages and Sharrock is reluctant to reveal too much at the moment.

“I'm writing and trying to figure out what I want to do next, but what I'm interested in is continuing on the same path. I feel like I have an identity as a filmmaker and a sensibility, and want to continue with that. I am interested in the world, global issues and politics and that feeds into my filmmaking and those are the things that sustain me. It takes three, four years to make a film, so it has to be something I can stay interested in for that amount of time. I'm not going to go and make a full-on action movie.”

Limbo doesn’t set out to have all of the answers, but it does raise questions and wry laughs, and has a cracking score and soundscape as well as a haunting setting.

“What really excites me as a filmmaker is different audience members seeing different things in the film in different ways, rather than there being one answer for everything. I don’t like to feed the audience. I like to engage them, and let them draw their own conclusions.”

LIMBO is available in cinemas from Friday [30 July] and on Digital and Blu-ray. Inverness Eden Court; Aberdeen Belmont; Glasgow Film Theatre, Braehead Odeon, Glasgow Quay Odeon Luxe; East Kilbride Odeon Luxe; Edinburgh Film House, Edinburgh Cameo, Edinburgh Lothian Road Odeon, Edinburgh West Odeon Luxe; Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee Odeon.

https://mubi.com/limbo

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Limbo director and writer Ben Sharrock's film asks questions about a pan-European attitude to asylum seekers. Sharrock at the EE British Academy Film Awards 2021 in Edinburgh.
Asylum seekers at a 'cultural awareness' class in Limbo.