'Limbo' (2020), Writer/Director: Ben Sharrock
A light tapping sound is barely audible over the opening titles. A close-up reveals a newly-chalked smiley face on a blackboard. In the next shot, a woman stands in a room as a man presses a button on a tape recorder. Ever so gently the woman, tweed-skirted Helga (oh joy, it is Borgen's
Sidse Babett Knudsen!) begins to sway to the sound of Hot Chocolate's 1982 song, It Started With a Kiss
. As her dancing loosens up, the man, Boris (Kenneth Collard) begins to dance with her, moving ever closer.
A reverse shot reveals rows of young Arabic and African men (20 or so) looking on, one with his eyes shielded behind a hand. Behind Helga, chalked on the blackboard, is the Lesson for the Day: 'Class Cultural Awareness 101: Sex: Is a smile an invitation?' Boris puts a hand on her bum. She slaps his face, shouts, 'No!' Then, 'Thank you Boris', and, crossing her arms, 'Can anyone tell me what Boris did wrong?' A hand goes up; we don't hear the answer.
These are the opening moments of Limbo
, the most deadpan, funniest beginning to any film I can remember. We are in an adult education classroom for refugees. The asylum seekers are in a cultural awareness class on a remote Scottish island. With this hilarious tone-setting scene, writer-director Ben Sharrock announces his offbeat perspective, and as Nick Cooke's unmoving camera observes the seated group of refugees, uninspired by their cultural immersion seminar, we know we'll give our full attention from now on, for fear of missing one odd beat or sly visual joke. With his droll humour and elegant style established from the outset, we soon care deeply for each of the characters Sharrock has assembled, in what is only his second feature film.
follows four men who are seeking asylum to remain in the UK, all forbidden to do paid work whilst awaiting the result of their applications. Flatmates Omar, Farhad, Wasef and Abedi, all single men, have been housed in a utilitarian, inhospitable hostel with a basic subsistence allowance. They wait and wait. Farhad is a sweet-natured Freddie Mercury fan from Afghanistan, whose reason to remain is revealed late on and elliptically. Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), apparently brothers from Nigeria, squabble constantly, once about Friends's
character Ross's belief that he is 'on a break' from dating Rachel, then, more consequentially, over Wasef's dream of playing football for Chelsea.
emotional heart, beautifully rendered by Egyptian star, Amir El-Masry, is an accomplished musician. Guilt-ridden about his Syrian identity, he is unable to play his oud, a traditional Syrian string instrument, the pink cast he wears on his injured wrist acting as both excuse and symbol of his emotional paralysis. He carries the oud around in its case, as Farhad says, like a coffin for his soul. Despite having waited '32 months and five days' for his letter granting him asylum, Farhad, played with relish by Vikash Bhai, remains upbeat. He even plans a concert for the locals and refugees. But will Omar play, even if he is able?
Since mobile phones seldom work on the island for want of a signal, Omar makes many trips to a phone box to call his mum who worries about the family. Most of all she wants Omar to call his estranged brother Nabil (Kais Nashif), the sole member of the family who has stayed in Syria to fight Assad. But it is the insistent conversations he has with his mum about the exact ingredients in the recipes she uses for his favourite food back home that are the most affecting. When he vainly attempts to buy these from the sparsely stocked local store, he learns a lesson from its owner (a star-turn from Sanjeev Kohli) when he asks if he is a 'Paki', a word he has recently learned from a local. 'Please refrain from urinating in the freezer aisle', reads a note on the shop wall.
This witty, beautiful film is full of surprises. Its rigorously un-didactic approach is both boldly political and poetic, its humour affording room to give ourselves over to the quirky story of physical and spiritual displacement we are being told, without overthinking the issue. Partly filmed in Uist in the Outer Hebrides, the island portrayed is definitely mythical – a bit like Brigadoon
– and the Scotland shown is bleakly beautiful and familiar, battered by the elements, populated by weird and wonderful inhabitants.
Early on, while trudging the long straight road across the island, Omar has an encounter with a carload of young locals. After saying, 'Don't f… like blow up or rape anyone, right?' they give him a lift, just one of several encounters that reminded me of Adam Smith's view that it is shared experience that 'civilises': it is simply living together.
Much of the film is shot in a box-like aspect ratio known as the Academy ratio, creating a spatial sense where wide landscapes and open skies jostle with interior scenes that feel very cramped. Each shot is composed in a formal and distinctive way, creating an uncanny sense that everything within the frame has been picked up and deliberately placed there: The phone box by the side of the road, which plays such a significant role in the film, feels especially so, randomly picked up and dropped in this odd place; a streetlight makes you ask why on earth would somebody put that there? This is precisely what the characters are experiencing, existing in a state of limbo, each picked up from their war-torn areas and placed on this island arbitrarily.
I was reminded of such masters of the meticulously staged frame as Aki Kaurismäki (Le Havre
, The Other Side of Hope
) and, even, Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal
), though I felt Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl
, Local Hero
) being channeled too. As Limbo
tracks the experience of Omar, he and his fellow refugees await processing by a government that has put them at this country's very edge – Yonder Awa' Awa'
, as Malika Booker's 19th-century poem puts it, foregrounding the out-of-sight, out-of-mind state of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean from the point of view of mainland Britain. At the end of the film, the framing changes, with a more expansive perspective allowing us to feel the journey is coming to an end – like a literal broadening of horizons.
Even the relentless wind is harnessed to bring a bleak haunting note to Hutch Demouilpied's sparing sound design, whilst the confined men are confronted daily by horizons that are limitless. Production designer Andy Drummond's colour palette of green and brown from the island, with some white and purple from the heather, is complemented with pinks and blues for the interiors, an attractive background against which Omar's bright blue jacket and pink cast pop.
The film's humour (some of it absurdist, including a chicken named Freddie Mercury, and an invalid scooter that keeps popping up) is never of the sort which makes foreigners the butt of jokes or casts their hosts as clueless dupes. Laughs lie in the gap between good intentions and the messiness of putting these into practice, a discordance drolly expressed in how the film's visual motifs clash with the fates of the people involved.
'Refugees Welcome' (later, 'not' will be scrawled between the words) reads the sign draped outside their hostel. But their hosts have not even supplied enough chairs for the men. It is in such wry observational asides that Sharrock's capacity for empathy is best displayed. He can also wrong-foot us (ably assisted by editors Karel Dolak and Lucia Zuchetti) as in one gorgeous cinematic joke involving the postie's red van.
Sharrock's desire to show us the world through the refugees' eyes comes from his own experiences. During his undergraduate degree in Arabic and politics at Edinburgh University he lived in Syria, before the civil war broke out, spending his third year in Damascus and making Syrian friends, some who are now asylum seekers. After specialising in Middle Eastern cinema and doing a dissertation on Arab and Muslim representations in American cinema, he went on to film school, before joining an NGO working in refugee camps in southern Algeria.
At the outset of the film, the camera mostly captures Omar from afar, dwarfed by vast coastal landscapes and boxed in through the film's constrictive aspect ratio. From this point of view, he is visually inseparable from the case held close to his body, which holds the musical instrument that represents his physical and psychological tether to Syria. But the bright pink cast on his broken arm prevents him from accessing the connection it could bring. As time passes, Limbo
captures Omar's widening horizons, gradually inching the camera closer (frequently capturing his gentle face in still profile) as he begins to open up to his surroundings and the people around him, chiefly Farhad.
This magical film from Ben Sharrock, an alchemy of story and style, is a rare achievement, seldom reached by films that tackle such sensitive social situations.
is available on Mubi)
Jean Barr is Emeritus Professor of Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Glasgow