Scottish filmmaker Ben Sharrock isn’t one to back away from a challenging match of style and subject matter. His debut feature, 2015’s Pikadero, related the desperation of a young Basque couple feeling the pinch of the Great Recession with droll wit. Now, Sharrock’s sophomore effort, Limbo, draws humor from a no less unlikely source: a group of refugees awaiting their asylum claims to process on a remote Scottish island.
There are countless ways that a Western filmmaker mining the stories of brown and black migrants for laughs could go off the rails, though Sharrock avoids such pitfalls thanks to nearly a decade of preparation in both heart and head. His university studies took him to Damascus just prior to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011, and experiencing cinema from the Middle East inspired him to come back to the United Kingdom and write his dissertation on the representation of Muslim and Arab characters in American media.
With Limbo, Sharrock expands the frame for characters like Omar (Amir El-Masry), a young Syrian musician whose estranged brother is fighting in the Syrian war and whose parents are coping with prejudice in Turkey, by exploring his humanity and not seeing his story as being ripped from today’s headlines. Yet at the same time, Sharrock’s tidy tableaus also serve to box in those characters within the frame, emphasizing the physical and psychological limitations faced by people uprooted from their homeland. The film is astutely attuned to the mundanity and monotony of refugees’ existence in both tragic and comic ways.
I spoke with Sharrock shortly prior to the U.S. theatrical release of Limbo. Our conversation covered the many ways in which he recognized and responded to the many contradictions contained within the film from script to shooting.
Your dissertation on Muslim and Arab representation on screen helped plant the seeds of Limbo. Beyond the well-known reality that there are very few roles available to Arabs in Western cinema that give them access to their full humanity, are there any other findings from your academic days that shaped the film?
In addition to often being cast as terrorists, they’re often defined by their religion. Omar is Muslim, but I didn’t want him to be defined by that. That was a conversation that Amir and I had, about how [that definition is] connected to how depictions of refugees can’t move past that label of being a refugee. We wanted to remove that side of it and focus on them as people, as human beings like us who we can relate to and have things in common with.
You’ve mentioned the two biggest things to ensure you avoided in Limbo were sensationalism and a Western or white-savior figure. Going beyond these preliminary structural choices, how did you work to ensure that the film centered the perspectives of the impacted rather than a gawking outsider’s gaze?
I think that some of that is grounded in the foundation of the film, which is, first and foremost, about the research, and speaking to people who’ve been through the asylum system, speaking with NGOs and organizations that work with refugees. And, I suppose, my own experience being around refugee camps, staying with a family in one, and working with an organization on a project that was specifically about identity. And, then, putting all of that into the script, and building my vision as a director into the writing of the screenplay. There’s a huge amount of work that went into the screenplay because I really felt a huge responsibility to get this film right—the balance of the humor and the drama—and do justice to the subject matter. And then, from there, building the right relationships along the way, bringing the right people on board, from the actors who committed so much to the characters to the refugees we collaborated with to make sure that everything fell into place. We had refugees playing extras in some of the smaller roles. But also, we shot on a remote Scottish Island, and we brought the local community into that. Everyone was really working toward the same vision and mission.
What about the planimetric composition appeals to you so much that you’ve decided to make it the lynchpin of your visual signature?
When I’m writing, I’m imagining the scenes and piecing the scenes together in my head during the writing of it. I’m visualizing the scenes with that planimetric framing. It goes back to the film I say is the one that made me want to be a director, Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains. Seeing that film and The Band’s Visit soon after, I thought, “I can do that. That’s in me.” I think the scriptwriting and the filmmaking go hand in hand. Not every story or type of film is going to work with this style of filmmaking, so I’m building the script into the filmmaking as well, which I treated in a linguistic way. I’m looking at the cinematic language, and that’s informing what’s going on within the film. So, in the case of Limbo, they’re in limbo. They’re in stasis. So planimetric, static frames are perfect to create that feeling. I was really thinking about it in those terms, not just doing style for the sake of style.
There’s a real stylistic evolution from your debut feature to Limbo with a lot more variation in shot selection, camera movement, and editing rhythms. How did you go about expanding your pallet from the tableau?
I think where that came from was a real desire to challenge the form and the emotional range of that type of filmmaking, which is what I was really interested in. With a lot of films that are symmetrical, planimetric, or are quite static and use a sort of absurdist or deadpan style of humor, they often find a way to sort of push the emotion of the film into a different realm. I was interested in challenging that form, expanding on it, introducing different camera movements, and pushing the emotional range of what a film like this can do even further.
How did you settle on the costumes and wardrobe, particularly Omar’s bright pink cast and neon blue windbreaker that really pop against the bleak Scottish landscape?
The blue coat is an interesting thing because you’re going through a process where you’re taking photos of different coats and hanging them up in the middle of the landscape on the island. I knew that we wanted to shoot a lot of wide shots and have Omar in the distance or marginalized and small in the frames. We wanted that coat to really stand out, so wherever we look, he would stand out and really pop out of the frame. We wanted a memorable image, but we also wanted a natural justification for such choices. Blue makes sense for Omar because the connotations of that, and it feels right for him. I’m kind of constantly trying to justify things and balance the aesthetic and the stylistic choices while also trying to ground them in something that’s also got a different layer to it. There’s also the pink cast, which in the script is a subtle reference to the civil war in Syria. Basically, they ran out of the blue and white casts because there’s a lot of men that were fighting in the war. So all they had left were pink casts.
Was playing with the aspect ratio in the film also something baked in at an early stage? It’s definitely unconventional to shoot some of these sweeping vistas in the boxy Academy ratio, and then the frame does expand later…
It’s grounded in two things. First, it’s tied to Omar and how he’s feeling. Regarding the Academy aspect ratio, the idea was to make him feel trapped and claustrophobic, as if the frame were sort of closing in on him in these spaces. The interior spaces are particularly tight. But, somehow, it also did this really interesting thing to the exteriors where we could also extend the sky. That would relate to the metaphorical purgatory of the island, where it’s sort of down and below [the sky]. Secondly, it’s tied to how the audience perceives Omar and the relationship between him and the other characters. With the Academy aspect ratio for that, we framed the floor and the ceiling so that we’re literally creating a box. We’re putting the refugees in a box so we are looking at them as if they’re in one, relating to the othering of refugees and that process. Then those two sides of it connect to what happens at the end. Omar’s perspective changes. His world opens out and he doesn’t feel trapped. There’s an element of hope in him, and when he plays the oud, that’s when his soul is released. And, at the same time, we’ve taken this journey with these characters, so we as the audience see them differently. We’re seeing them as people and human beings, and, hopefully, we feel close to them. So, also, our perspective of them has changed. They’re no longer in this box.