'Limbo' is not about refugees — it's 'about people'

A screenshot of a movie.
Omar, played by Amir El-Masry, and some of the other refugees in Ben Sharrock’s film “Limbo” await their fate on a remote Scottish island.
Courtesy of Focus Features

"Limbo," a new movie about people trying to escape conflict in their home countries, opens in Minnesota this weekend. Despite the tragic backdrop, the story is actually a comedy that focuses on people caught up in the refugee crisis of recent years. They've ended up in the Western Isles of Scotland. However, its characters have far from the usual tourist experience.

"Limbo" follows the misadventures of Omar, a Syrian fleeing his country's civil war. He's so desperately homesick he calls his parents from a pay phone on the side of a remote road. 

"Hello, mama?" he asks

"Omar?" his mother asks. "Where are you?"

"Scotland," he replies.

"Your father wants to know if it's like Guantanamo," she asks.

The locals have comments and questions, too.

"You one o' they refugees?" asks one man.

"He's nae a tourist Margaret," states another. 

When the Sikh who runs the local minimart asks, "Are you Muslim?" Omar nods yes. He's told "We haven't got halal."

Omar maintains a hangdog expression though it all. 

"I was playing it straight the whole time, and trying to play against the comedy, as such. Which was tricky," said Amir El-Masry, who plays Omar.

Born in Cairo, but raised in London, El-Masry became a film star in Egypt. He went there because he was tired of being offered what he saw as stereotypical roles. He's now built an English language career, including a role as an imperial commander in "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker."

Then one day, his agent passed along the script for "Limbo," written by director Ben Sharrock. Initially El-Masry was reluctant to consider a story about refugees.

"In other depictions I have seen in the past, you'll have a Western character who shows them a better way of life, or saves them from their plight," he said. "But with this, Ben puts Omar into the forefront of the narrative. He gives him agency."

A man talks on a movie set.
Writer-director Ben Sharrock talks to actor Amir El-Masry on the set of “Limbo.” El-Masry plays Omar, a Syrian refugee who has fled civil war in his homeland in search of a safer life, but finds separation from family almost unbearable as he waits to hear if he will get asylum in the U.K.
Courtesy of Focus Features

In the film, Omar is one of a large group of refugees — all men — from Africa, the Middle East and beyond. The U.K. government has sent them to a Scottish island to wait while their asylum claims are processed. 

Omar feels lost, powerless, experiencing the “limbo” of the movie's title

He is worried about his family, especially his brother who volunteered to fight in the Syrian civil war. 

His parents want him to send money. But he can't work legally.

And he's a musician. He carries his grandfather's oud, the Arab stringed instrument. Omar is known for his playing, but now one of his hands is wrapped in a bright pink cast after an accident.

He occasionally trudges back to that pay phone to try to find news.

"If you are calling about an asylum claim, please hang up" a recorded message tells Omar. "How long have you been waiting?" he asks Farhad, an Afghan he has befriended. "Thirty-two months and five days," he replied.

The idea for “Limbo” gestated in Sharrock's mind for a decade. He's a Scot who studied Arabic at university and worked in Syria the year before the civil war broke out. He later worked in refugee camps in Algeria. As media coverage of the refugee crisis in Europe mounted, he wrestled with what he saw.

"I was really struck by the representation of refugees," he said "Where we had the demonizing on one side, and the pitying of refugees on the other side. And both of these things kind of felt very dehumanizing and looking at refugees as just numbers and statistics."

In time he came up with his own approach.

"This idea that I wanted to make a film about the refugee crisis without making a refugee film," he said. "And really, it became this point where it's just a film about people." 

They shot the film on Uist, one of the Outer Hebrides. It boasts beautiful country, the potential for diabolical weather and few amenities. El-Masri remembers having to change costumes on the side of the road, looking out to the Atlantic.

"West onwards, there was nothing till America," he laughed. "So you do think, 'Oh gosh, how insignificant you are on this planet.' There were more sheep than people on that island as well." 

"Limbo" is very funny, but also carries a great weight of sadness. All of the men would rather be home. El-Masri said films like this are essential.

"Especially to an audience that might be foreign to this subject matter," he said. "And what better way to use comedy? Because we draw the audience in closer rather than try to make them feel guilty."

And for those of you who are wondering, writer-director Sharrock said yes, the pay phone box in "Limbo" is a tribute to the phone box in another popular Scottish film "Local Hero." 

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