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Limbo by Maya Fletcher-Smith

Director Ben Sharrock has utilised the tragicomic genre to it’s best, most poignant effect. 08 August 2021

Still taken from Limbo, directed by Ben Sharrock. Image: TIFF.

Traipsing down an empty road across a harsh Hebridean landscape, Syrian musician and refugee Omar (Amir El-Masry) clutches his grandfather’s oud with his broken, plaster cast-bound arm. The instrument hasn’t left Omar’s side since his arrival at a remote Scottish refugee centre, and yet, even after the cast is removed, playing seems an insurmountable task – the joyous sound of cultural celebration has become a painful reminder of home, or of how distant home has become. Director Ben Sharrock has pulled off an extraordinary feat with this beautifully bleak tragicomedy. A desolate Scottish backdrop dominates the screen, with the Bergmanesque use of scenery expressing both a physical and psychological solitude. Frequent long shots are almost unbearably drawn-out, complimenting the sense of anticipation and frustration experienced by the refugees. Alongside exploring such serious subject matter, Limbo is dappled with flecks of a deadpan humour which, although occasionally missing the mark, for the most part works well to point out the absurdity of British culture and blatant flaws in the handling of the migrant crisis. Trapped, unable to work, overcome with worry for loved ones overseas, Omar is required to attend comically patronising cultural assimilation classes. Things of any real use – like a winter coat to protect against the bitter Scottish weather – are harder to come by.

Still taken from Limbo, directed by Ben Sharrock. Image: TIFF.

Many have commented that Limbo’s cinematography and overall stylisation closely parallels that of Wes Anderson’s work. Admittedly, the similarities are hard to ignore. The overall effect is very similar; the symmetrical composition, the awkward pacing and a harmonious colour palette of retro-inspired pastels can all be considered hallmarks of Anderson, or of his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Robert Yeoman. But Limbo deserves better than being reduced to this comparison. It can be argued the directors have simply drawn inspiration from the same sources as, for example, there are elements of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s early work in both Anderson’s and Sharrock’s stylisation. Moreover, the prolonged close-up shots of El-Masry’s extraordinary deadpan face are more reminiscent of Buster Keaton and work excellently to convey Omar’s stoic attitude in the face of terrifying uncertainty. Beyond aesthetics, Limbo also provokes thought on how victims of humanitarian tragedies are treated in their adoptive home countries. One migrant makes the painful observation that refugees soon get ‘passed their sell-by dates’. No longer priority cases, they’re rounded up and kept out of the way in refugee centres. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s a fair point; we’re all to some extent guilty of focusing our attention on the latest international travesty to the detriment of others. Perhaps guilty of assuming that humanitarian crises resolve themselves just as soon as they recede from view in mainstream news sources. It soon becomes apparent to the neglected Omar that even Syrian refugees are no longer a priority. Upon enquiring into the status of his application for asylum, he is promptly told by an automated message to hang up the phone if he has been waiting for less than thirty days. Outside, the wind wails and rattles the phone box windows. Fellow refugee, Afghan Freddie Mercury superfan Farhad (Vikash Bhai), has been waiting for thirty-two months and five days. Limbo highlights the reality that a person’s suffering doesn’t suddenly expire once they no longer make headline news. Ben Sharrock has utilised the tragicomic genre to its best, arguably most poignant effect. Most depictions of the refugee experience take a gritty angle, focusing on the danger from which migrants flee or their perilous journey to asylum. Instead, Limbo is infused with a wry humour and wit that humanises the refugees stuck at the centre. The focus isn’t their victimhood, but their character. For much of the film, Omar appears simply dumbstruck by the sheer mundanity of this new, half-life: the condescending centre workers, the spice aisle at the local supermarket which consists of salt, pepper, and Colman’s English Mustard, the endless episodes of Friends and bowls of Cheerios. Yes, he made it out of Syria alive, but Omar is now being faced with perhaps the most difficult task of all – rebuilding his life in a world which will never be the same again. This overwhelming feeling is what Limbo so viscerally evokes. With fingers tentatively plucking at the oud’s strings for the first time in weeks, Omar waits, reflects, is slowly consumed with worry. We share in his unease.

Still taken from Limbo, directed by Ben Sharrock. Image: TIFF.


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