Limbo is a bold new film about the refugee experience. Omar (Amir El-Masry) is a Syrian who has landed on a remote Scottish island seeking asylum. The island is a peculiar place. There are strange classes meant to help ease new arrivals into a new way of life. A convenience store that only seems to carry ketchup and mustard. Omar is armed with only his grandfather’s Oud, an eleven-stringed pear-shaped instrument, belonging to the lute family. This marker of his heritage takes on symbolic value, of the burden of our traditions and histories, the way we are weighted down by our past, and how what we have not especially chosen then becomes our identity in a new place. There are two goals for Omar: he wants to establish himself as a musician and he needs to seek out the ground powder of a Sumac plant in this island of ketchup and mustard.
With a deadpan wit, the film is able to bridge both comedy and metaphorical meaning. It certainly feels like we are in limbo. A holding place, where newcomers must deal with what they have left behind. What will come to identify them here. The outer reaches of Scotland’s Hebrides islands are flanked by incessant gale force winds. The winds carry in so many migrants, but warn that seeking asylum may be a more difficult path than what it seems. It’s with a great sense of humor that Limbo navigates these stories. It’s able to establish so much with simple symbolism.
It all seems to come from the right place. Director Ben Sharrock worked in refugee camps in Algeria and was living in Syria around the time of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. He experienced the characters of his story directly. It feels as though it comes from a deep-rooted place of inspiration. As it’s very common in parts of Europe, for those seeking asylum to spend long stretches waiting for clearance on a remote territory, the author very directly adapted this into his story. As Sharrock shares with Screen Daily, he once met a man who waited for six years seeking asylum, and became homeless in the process. Deeply touched by this story, he’s able to deftly weave that into the narrative of Limbo.
It feels as though perhaps the film has been put into a kind of limbo itself. It had a successful run with festivals at Cannes and Cairo (where it won the Golden Pyramid for best film), and like many films gaining heat last year, it was just about to make the worldwide circuit, and then the release schedule was put into an indefinite holding pattern. That is not to say any of our waiting for hidden gems like Limbo matches anything like the reality of the experience portrayed.
Brutalized by the cold weather and frigid locals, there is little hope offered to Omar. His lute-like instrument is the only holdover of his old world. Here he awaits any sign of change, endlessly pining away for any outcome that could help his case. Like Omar, the film keeps the audience at arm’s length. The box-like aspect ratio means we are not getting the whole picture. The frame is also in a limbo, a squared purgatory of limited digital information. Black boxes, where potential would be, if only they could be opened up, and we could see what else is out there in the world.
Sharrock has crafted a heartfelt, funny, and moving portrait of a difficult migrant story. He has found a novel way to express something difficult. It is a very decent film, exclusively using non-white actors to tell the story that the film — and the migrants it represents — needed to tell. Both as a piece of social currency and cleverly poignant filmmaking, Limbo makes us feel frustrated and trapped with its characters, as a sign of its success. To submit to the agreement to be trapped by a movie is one thing, but when it ends with a fantastic and deeply cathartic moment that will rank among the year’s most memorable changes of momentum, that is a moment where a film is lifted to another space altogether.