After graduating with a degree in Arabic and politics from the University of Edinburgh, Ben Sharrock lived for a time in Syria. His experiences inspired his new film Limbo, about a group of refugees being detained on a remote Scottish isle hoping they will be granted asylum status. The film manages to be empathetic to the plight of immigrants without being preachy. And while the futures of these young men hang in the balance and we sense their fears and desperation, Sharrock includes comic moments that lighten the mood and humanize everyone involved.
Omar (a terrific performance by Amir El-Masry) left Syria with his parents who remain in Turkey. His brother, Nabil (Kais Nashif), is still in Syria fighting against Assad’s army. Taking different paths led to an estrangement between the brothers. Whenever Omar calls his parents from a phone box, his mother pleads with him to call Nabil. Their calls are often cut off before Omar can commit. Omar is a gifted musician, playing the oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument. With his right hand in a cast, Omar hasn’t played for a long time. He carries the oud everywhere he goes, but even when the cast is removed, he can’t play, whatever muse that once inspired his music is missing.
Omar lives in a hostel-like building with Farhad (Vikash Bhai), from Afghanistan who loves Freddie Mercury. Farhad is older but childlike, hugging like a stuffed animal the chicken he steals from a neighboring yard. He keeps pressuring Omar to give a concert, offering to be the young man’s agent. The other two refugees in the house are brothers from Nigeria, Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), who, after watching several Friends DVDs, bicker about the Rachel-Ross relationship.
Should any of these refugees be allowed to stay, an effort is made to school them in proper behavior. Acted out by Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard) these demonstrations are humorous for being so over the top, but also condescending, assuming these young men have no idea, for example, how to dance with a woman.
Locals are initially hostile to the newcomers, a group of teenagers asking Omar if he is going to blow something up. Their curiosity wins out, however, and they offer him a ride. Later, farmers will ask Omar and others for help when a snowstorm strands their sheep. (Until their status is determined, the refugees are not allowed to take paying jobs, sustaining themselves on the small stipend given by the Scottish government.) A thoughtful gesture is made by the owner of the local food store. Omar, wanting to make one of his mother’s recipes, asks about a certain spice. On his next visit, he finds it on the store’s shelf.
With the waiting time stretching on, Omar and Farhad worry they will be sent back to their countries. Farhad confides in Omar why he can’t go back. For his part, Omar is truly in limbo, unwilling to give up his dream of staying in England, but missing his family. A conversation with his mother, about the worsening situation in Syria, at least settles his mind about that option. But reducing his choices doesn’t do anything to lift his spirits.
Cinematography by Nick Cooke captures the beauty, as well as the desolation, of the Scottish terrain, elevating the film’s emotional impact. The scenery truly evokes what limbo, or, in the Christian world, purgatory, might look like. For sure, it’s nowhere to stay forever.
Top photo: (L to R) Amir El-Masry as “Omar,” Ola Orebiyi as “Wasef,” Kwabena Owuso-Ansah as “Abedi,” and Vikash Bhai as “Farhad” in director Ben Sharrock’s “Limbo”, a Focus Features release.
Cr. Courtesy of Focus Features
All photos courtesy of Focus Features