With humor and empathy, Limbo finds Syrian refugee Omar in Scotland
Though millions of people have experienced displacement, struggling to survive as refugees, it strikes me as very difficult to understand what that truly feels like, as different as it may be for each. Welcome, then, writer/director Ben Sharrock’s Limbo that perceptively imagines and communicates one such situation with a surprising amount of humor though never ignoring the pain and loneliness.
The setup is elegant and simple. When first presented, Syrian refugee Omar sits with a group of men in a Cultural Awareness 101 class led by the comically clueless pair of Helga and Boris. Along with the others, Omar has made his way to a remote, fictional Scottish island. Asked “Why?” The answer is simple. “I know English” which he learned from Freddie Mercury. However, the windswept, beautiful but barren landscape accurately mirrors their dire prospects as they wait and wait for papers granting asylum. Omar is doubly burdened, carrying everywhere his grandfather’s oud (an instrument similar to a lute) brought with him from Istanbul, though his right forearm’s cast makes it impossible for him to play.
From a telephone booth in the middle of nowhere, Omar talks regularly with his mother in Istanbul, worrying about his brother Nabil, getting a recipe for sweet treats he’s missed. Meantime, he and would-be agent/friend Farhad with two African refugees (one from Ghana, one from Nigeria) mill about, visit the largely empty market, dream (one wanting to be a footballer), and attend their culture class. The deadpan reactions to their lessons, punctuating the narrative, add droll absurdity. For example, asked to complete the sentence, “I used to …” Boris suggests, “have a home until coalition forces blew it up.” Helga suggests, “I used to have a dog and she got rabies and I had to kill her.”
Writer/director Sharrock stages action soundly: Farhad and Omar in their claustrophobic room contrasting with wide-open, inhospitable terrain, a storm in one scene causing a total whiteout. As Omar, Amir El-Masry reacts with deadpan acceptance. During one particularly emotional conversation with his mother, cinematographer Nick Cooke’s camera stays locked down in an agonizing close-up for minutes. As Farhad, Vakash Bhai adds needed emotion. Boris (Kenneth Collard) and Helga (Sidse Babett Kundsen) add absurdity. Limbo is empathetic, humane, appealing and quiet.