The refugee crisis isn’t exactly a new subject that hasn’t been broached before, but now it’s being looked at with a real-life lens—meaning that underneath the circumstances, there are real humans living out those stories.
“More often than not, you see films depicting [the refugees] in a negative light or you have a Western character that shows them a better way of living or a better life,” says actor Amir El-Masry.
El-Masry plays Omar—a talented Syrian musician who is thrust out of his normal life and away from his family onto a remote Scottish Island awaiting asylum—in director/writer Ben Sharrock’s feature film ‘Limbo.’ That nuanced assumption about the script is one that is prevalent when thinking of tales of refugees in pop culture, but when El-Masry read the complete opposite in Sharrock’s script, the actor was interested.
“What this script does and Ben beautifully balances is the comedy and dramatic elements, but also, he puts Omar into the forefront of the narrative and gives him agency. He’s constantly reminding the audience how much he loves his country and the Syrian culture…The food, the music, everything pops up in the script, so I loved that.”
Sharrock wrote the script through his own set of life circumstances. Although not a refugee himself, Sharrock spent part of his time as an undergrad in Syria, right before the Civil War there broke out. His dissertation was also about Arabic and Muslim representations in American cinema and TV. Over time, after attending film school and working in refugee camps, this idea of identity began to emerge when thinking of what refugees have to go through.
“I think that stayed with me,” says Sharrock. “I was really struck by the representation of refugees and how one side, we had the demonizing of refugees, and then on the other, we had the pitying of refugees. It was all seen as numbers or statistics and I really felt like there was this gap in the middle where I wanted to humanize the refugee experience and try to write a film that also avoids all of these different things. So I set off on this journey to write the screenplay.”
While beginning to write ‘Limbo’, which centers on El-Masry’s Omar and a few other refugees with their own quirks—like Vikash Bhai’s panda cap wearing, David Bowie loving Farhad—learning to cope with immersing themselves into a new culture. And that’s something that is made hilariously clear through the refugees own “assimilation” classes set up a la college style, but all the while they are waiting for a letter that may never come. To add to the desolation, the only contact they have with family is through a singular phone-booth, which ironically makes this desolate area of Scotland look even lonelier with it standing there than if it wasn’t there at all. It’s through these phone calls that we begin to piece together who Omar is.
“Those phone booth moments, I was really looking forward to watching them back, because I knew what it felt like to be on the phone to my family away from home… He was so restrained 80% of the film and all of a sudden you see him bursting out. I put a lot of trust into Ben making sure that I was getting the levels right as well for him,” explains El-Masry. “More often than not, a lot of myself was coming out and I would break down and start to cry and he would say you’ve got to hold it in… because the second you release, that gives the audience the time to relax, and we don’t want them to until right until the very end.”
The reason for the white-knuckled approach to the characters, who also have plenty of dead-pan humor sprinkled in, was one that was calculated by Sharrock for the honesty of a situation. But the writing was something that even with a lot of experience was still difficult to do.
“It was really challenging to write the screenplay, it took me forever and I really struggled with it,” explains Sharrock. “It would be easy to start writing in the Western character a little bit more, and then I would fall for that trap and then would go wait a minute, that’s exactly what I wanted to avoid. Then I would start again.”
Sharrock also noted that the face of Omar, who is the focal point of ‘Limbo’ was very important. “I knew that I wanted to cast the right face… One where we can spend an hour and forty minutes and get so much from a minimal style of performance as well. The deadpan performance had to be truthful and real, [and it] also has to be something that an actor can really own.”
Those deadpanned moments and long pauses seen throughout Sharrock’s film isn’t something that’s just there for comedic timing or to add some levity to a heavy subject. Throughout the film, the refugees that live and interact with the islanders have to deal with life, so just like in life, there is normal humor sprinkled into every situation good or bad.
“I knew that in order to make a film about this subject, this sort of mix of human drama is built into my filmmaking. It’s very integral to me as a filmmaker. But I knew when approaching this subject, it had to do something different that other films weren’t doing, or something different than what we would get from a documentary on the subject. So, it was very important to be able to access it in a different way, and I think humor is such a brilliant device for that because I think it’s also grounded in truth,” says Sharrock.
‘Limbo,’ although not from one exact viewpoint, does show the ins and outs of one man’s journey, one that most people can relate too on some level. But it still shows the reality of a situation—one that isn’t full of pain or Western viewpoints.
“I think there’s no better way to tell an important story than with comedic elements,” says El-Masry. “It draws the audience in rather than alienating them. I think when you use too much dramatic elements in a script, what tends to happen is the audience starts to feel guilty or to blame for that situation, rather than just kind of leaving it there and not telling them how to feel. They come out of it feeling how they want to feel. That’s what I loved. It’s effective and I loved the fact that there were comedic elements because you make the scenes familiar to any audience member. You don’t need to know about the Syrian refugee crisis to know what it feels like to be separated from your loved ones, or the feeling of loss of identity, or being in a new territory and wondering how do you cope?”
‘Limbo’ releases in theaters April 30.