How 'Limbo' breathes life and humanism into the refugee story

30 Jul 2021 BY Steven Ryder in Film Features

5 mins

Many of us feel like we are in limbo every day. Whether we are floating between jobs, relationships, schools or the place that we live, limbo can often be a difficult place to thrive. Figuring out where we belong and being able to declare ourselves as settled is often a basic human need and, in most countries, considered a human right. For some people around the world they are quite literally stuck without a place of residence and without a country that they can officially call home but as travel and migration becomes more widespread than ever, it becomes increasingly important to breathe life into these stories that often go unnoticed by the wider population.

Limbo, the second feature film from director Ben Sharrock, is as accessible as a film about immigration can be. Whilst it takes an unconventional, often darkly funny approach to undocumented migration it is also wildly entertaining without ever losing sight of the poignancy and struggles that often define the experience as a whole. It introduces us to a group of refugees from different sides of the globe who find themselves stuck on a fictional, Scottish island whilst awaiting to hear whether they will be granted status to move on and live as residents in the United Kingdom. During their time on the island, they take part in excruciating cultural awareness classes lead by an oblivious local couple whilst sharing their dreams for the future and the tragedies of their past.

What sets Limbo apart from other, more resolute, film about immigration (such as the harrowing This is Exile or hard-hitting Sin Nombre) is its ability to develop characters so quickly using deadpan comedy and relatable moments. Omar, a Syrian refugee, is our anchor to this secluded world; he is a young man, handsome yet sullen, who carries a traditional Arabic instrument called the oud around with him everywhere he goes. As he begins to navigate the strange island and its inhabitants, he also finds time to bond and develop relationships with his fellow refugees who help him rediscover his love for music and his relationship with his homeland. These include a Freddie Mercury-loving Afghan named Farhad and two African "brothers" who argue about everything from football to their new favourite television show ‘Friends'.

The film is quick to highlight that this group consists of single men, often the most vilified of refugees in the media. It is all the more important then that films like Limbo contribute towards combating the demonisation of refugees by replacing the imagery of inflatable boats and cities devastated by war with quiet, human moments. The very notion of a cultural centre where refugees are held between countries will be new to most people, especially young British viewers. Coupled with the wide variety of characters and motivations on show, Limbo is ripe for generating conversations around ethics, politics and even philosophy but, more than anything, it gives rise to notions of understanding and empathy.

Oftentimes empathy can be extracted from humour and Omar, played expertly by Amir El-Masry, is a source of comedy throughout Limbo. Even when he finds himself in the wildest of situations, such as in the back of a cramped car doing wheelies on a beach with some xenophobic locals, his face maintains an inscrutable, comic lack of emotion and his conversations with Farhad often devolve into friendly squabbles around their cultural differences. Instead of the desperate journeys and trials that often befall migrants and refugees in cinema, here we see these three-dimensional characters trying to squash their boredom with storytelling, reminiscing and camaraderie.

Yet, for all the film's use of comedy to lighten the mood around this barren island, the film never downplays the hardships faced by Omar and his fellow migrants. Leaving your family and friends thousands of miles behind you for a strange future across an unforgiving landscape is an experience that cannot be replicated by cinema. However, Limbo gently invites audiences to take a brief pause along with these memorable characters to consider the loneliness they go through and the strength that it takes to complete their journey, all whilst providing us with a reminder that not every migrant story is the same. This one in particular never rests on its laurels.

Limbo is released in UK cinemas on Friday 31 July.


Steven Ryder, Curation Officer

Steven has an MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation from the National Film and Television School. He has previously worked for various exhibitors around England and currently freelances as a film critic/podcaster.

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