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'Limbo' writer-director Ben Sharrock on using humor to share the story of the refugee experience

April 28, 2021
3 min read time

Standing alone in a telephone booth on a remote Scottish island, Omar (Amir El-Masry) calls his parents to share the progress of his asylum request. He looks down at the plaster cast on his arm as his father badgers him over his inability to play his oud that he carries with him everywhere he goes. He is stuck. Unsure of what is ahead, he takes things day by day with fellow refugees, who are also adapting to a new environment filled with oddball locals and uncertainty. More importantly, he is battling with his identity. Simply put, he is stuck in limbo. 

Writer-director Ben Sharrock’s new feature Limbo uses humor and cross-cultural satire to share the trials and tribulations of the refugee experience, featuring a young Syrian musician as the focal character. 

Sharrock approached the film with plenty of research and experience speaking with refugees to get an understanding of their lives. Everything he learned while working with an NGO and in refugee camps in Southern Algeria influenced how he told the story of Omar and his loss of identity. There were even parts that were based on reality, including Omar traveling with only his oud. Every part of the narrative was influenced by the perspectives of refugees. 

“I knew that I didn't want to have a western character as a vehicle to tell a story about refugees,” he said.

“I wanted to put the refugee characters front and center of the film.”

Early on in the process, he knew identity would be central to the film and explored how refugees struggle to connect to it when their worlds are constantly changing. When he spoke to people who have gone through the asylum claim like Omar does in the film, Sharrock remarked hearing ways that the label “refugee” particularly affected their identity. 

“They would talk very specifically about how it affected their identity and how they kind of lost their identity because they lost their connection to their homeland and their language and their family and their friends and who they were back home, as opposed to who they are in this moment in Scotland,” Sharrock said. 

His writing process of the film came hand in hand with his role as a director, writing scenes as he envisioned how they would be onscreen. This particularly happened with the very first scene of Limbo. It begins in the middle of a “cultural awareness” class for refugees hosted by locals Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard). Sharrock recalls getting the idea all at once. 

“I got that scene fully formed in my head, shot by shot, and just wrote it out,” he said.

“And I just knew that that was the scene to start the film with because I felt like it kind of sets us up for this strange world and kind of encapsulates the tone of the film as well.” 

What makes the scene memorable is the absurdist humor it holds. Sharrock maintains a witty and comical tone throughout Limbo to challenge people’s expectations of a story about refugees, instead offering an offbeat film that makes the subject matter more accessible. 

“It’s like vitamin gummies,” he said.

“You know, it’s good for you but it’s sort of sweet and it tastes good as well, it goes down easily, and I think humor works in that way.”

His use of humor particularly examines the perspective of who and what the joke is based on. 

“It's kind of looking at the absurdity of us as westerners, and how we're looking at the refugee characters and how we can be absurd and how we're othering these people,” he said.

“It's almost as well like turning the tables and the joke is on the western characters rather than on the refugee characters.”

Limbo was later selected for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, a reassuring and supportive feat for Sharrock. 

“When we got that recognition from Cannes, which is a huge personal ambition of mine, it felt like it was all worth it and we were going to be able to get this film out there,” he said. 

Sharrock says he believes the journey and struggle of understanding one’s identity is what makes the film and characters, no matter how odd or jarring, relatable. Omar’s journey to play the oud again and unpack the grief he holds from being displaced from home depicts universal feelings of one’s loss of identity. Sharrock’s focus on the human condition and daily life of refugees outside of the sensationalized depictions in mainstream media provides a fresh perspective that represents people’s introspective emotional journey of identity.

“I knew that that was something that I wanted to explore, but I also felt like it was something that was very universal,” he said.

“It was something that's particular to being a refugee in the film, but actually, all of us at some point question our identity and will change our identity in some way or another throughout our lives.” 

Focus Features will release Limbo in theaters April 30.

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