Audiences who come across “Limbo,” Ben Sharrock’s quirky, heartbreaking and confident fish out of water tale about a Syrian refugee in the middle of nowhere, might be surprised to know that this is only the Scottish filmmaker’s second feature. His first, “Pikadero” (2015), the story of a Basque couple’s desperate attempts to find a place where they can be alone (and which Sharrock shot entirely in Basque), only played the Festival circuit and is now available on Amazon Prime. Based on what I’ve read about that feature debut, “Limbo” shares with “Pikadero” the same deadpan sense of humor, a fine eye and ear for the absurd, and a love for open spaces, long static shots and symmetrical framing; and both owe a debt to the works Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch. In other words, we here have a filmmaker who, with only two films, has developed a distinctive style and point-of-view and one we all film lovers should keep an eye on.
“Limbo” opens in the middle of the first of a series of cultural awareness classes taught by two droll government officials —Helga (Sidse Babbett-Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard)— to a group of male refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa who have been relocated to an isolated, stark and beautiful Scottish island to wait for a decision on their request for asylum. On this occasion, they are being taught how to properly behave with women at a dance. In another session later on in the film, they will be asked how to use the phrase “I used to” in a sentence; the refugees’ responses pack a wallop, turning upside down the film’s deadpan humor. Omar (British-Egyptian actor Amir El-Masry) is one of these students, a young Syrian refugee who has left his family behind in Turkey after they left Syria and who won’t speak to his brother Nabil after he went back to fight with the rebel forces.
Omar has arrived to this island carrying his grandfather’s oud inside a case, his dreams of pursuing a musical career in England put on hold not only by the long wait but by a huge cast on his arm. He carries the case wherever he goes; it’s his only connection to the motherland outside the emotionally draining phone calls he makes to his family from a solitary payphone in the middle of a highway. He and fellow refugees Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghan refugee who learned to speak English listening to Freddie Mercury and now wears a moustache in his honor, and the West African “siblings” Abedi (Kwabena Anash) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), spend their time watching bootleg copies of “Friends” on the apartment they share or staring, with some degree of amusement, at the quirky habits of the island’s inhabitants. They are forbidden from taking on any jobs since this could get them deported as their papers are being processed. But even racism can rear its ugly head in this lonely place: two hooligans and their girlfriends stop Omar on the beach and hurl every single racial epithet and stereotype at him to later offer him a ride back to town; the word “not” has been scrawled in red on a sign that reads “refugees welcomed”; and a Sikh grocer with a strong Glasgow accent gives Omar a linguistic lesson on British racism. Police occasionally stop by to arrest those refugees whose asylum petition has been denied.
Sharrock pivots from quirky Jarmusch-like comedy into something more profound, more melancholic in the film’s second half. For this is after all a story about solitude, a feeling heightened by the beautiful and desolate landscape that stretches out to the horizon, by that solitary phone booth, and the howling cold wind. Omar feels he can no longer play the oud, so far is he away from home. He even at one point leaves the case behind for it to be returned by one of those Scottish teens who mocked him at the beginning. While most films about immigration focus on the violence, the discrimination and struggles these migrants face, Sharrock, basing the story on his own experiences working alongside refugees, opts for a more humanist approach. He is far more interested on the psychological toll, the sense of displacement, of being a stranger in a strange land that most migrants feel. “Limbo” grows on you as it shifts gears, these shifts made that much easier to accept by El-Masry’s mostly introspective and controlled performance as Omar. His eyes may express amusement and befuddlement at what he sees but his body, always tense, and his voice hint at the myriad emotions he’s trying to contain, the uncertainty he faces as he questions his decision to leave for England and the pain caused by his brother’s decision to go back to Syria.
Sharrock and director of photography Nick Cooke (who also shot “Pikadero”) heighten the sense of entrapment and stasis by shooting mostly in a 4:3 aspect ratio. But that framing also draws us close to these characters and the stark beauty of the landscape. It sucks us right in to the point that we barely notice the shift to a larger aspect ratio towards the film’s dreamlike end. The shift may metaphorically liberate Omar as he prepares to embrace whatever fate awaits him. But it liberates us as well, as the film invites us to stop seeing migrants like Omar as victims and to acknowledge their humanity.