Ben Sharrock on moving refugee comedy Limbo

Humour and humanity abound in Limbo, Ben Sharrock's moving deadpan comedy about a group of refugees killing time on a desolate Scottish island, patiently hoping to be granted visas

Article by Jamie Dunn | 19 Feb 2021
  • Limbo

When Ben Sharrock was writing the script for Limbo, his openhearted new comedy-drama, he thought he’d struck upon a suitably ridiculous scenario with which to tell the story of the torment inflicted on refugees once they reach their destination. “Quite early on there was this idea of utter remoteness,” the Scottish director, who splits his time between San Sebastian and Edinburgh, tells me down the phone on the eve of him and his producer/wife, Irune Gurtubai, winning BAFTA New Talent awards for the film.

“I had this kind of cold environment in mind, this harsh weather, and a small community for them to be trapped in.” Initially, he considered Iceland for his location, but on a recce there he realised there was a barren, secluded, wind-lashed landscape much closer to home that would work just as well. “We were going around the north-west fjords, and I thought to myself, ‘We could be in Scotland’, and suddenly realised maybe it would make more sense to set it there.”

Sharrock changed the setting to an unnamed island in the Hebrides (it was shot on Uist) where refugees await the mercy of the home office. Little did he know, however, that the home secretary, Preti Patel, would soon float the idea that the UK should start processing their asylum seekers somewhere even more remote: a volcanic island on St Helena. “It's quite amazing that that came up,” said Sharrock. “I don't know if you saw any of Steve Bell’s cartoons in The Guardian about Priti Patel putting asylum seekers on this rock on this colonial outpost. I wanted [the setting in Limbo] to give an undertone of humour and create this sort of absurdist situation. So now it's unbelievable that they're actually thinking of doing it!”

Suffice it to say, there’s much more humanity to be found in Sharrock’s vision than Patel’s. The film thrusts us into the lives of a handful of refugees waiting indefinitely for visas on a weatherbeaten island, whose mostly friendly residents seem as bemused by the situation as the migrants themselves. Sharrock explains that he didn’t want to lean too heavily on the culture-clash possibilities of the scenario. “I wanted to be quite sensitive about that, because Scotland has actually, within the context of the UK, done the best in terms of refugee resettlement programs. So I wanted to be careful not to create this image of the islanders being kind of horrible, and I think that that's also the sort of a generic trope that's used in these cultural reconciliation narratives.”

This wasn’t the only cliche Sharrock wanted to circumvent. “I started out with a big list of things to avoid. Top of that list was one) sensationalising the subject matter, and two) not using a kind of Western white saviour character, and really telling the story from the perspective on the refugees and putting them in the centre of the film.” When Sharrock says the centre of the film he’s also talking literally. Characters are placed very deliberately and startlingly in the middle of the frame, often looking down the barrel of the camera, like in the fastidious fairy tales of Aki Kaurismäki, Roy Andersson and Wes Anderson, creating a world that feels a few degrees of separation from our own, which only accentuates the characters’ feelings of isolation. Similarly to the films of those aforementioned directors, absurdist sight gags abound while one-liners are delivered via the most deadpan of faces.

Sharrock reckons his style wasn't forged from these Western filmmakers, but while studying Arabic and politics as an undergraduate at The University of Edinburgh, where he began hosting Middle Eastern film nights. “I was watching a lot of Iranian cinema at the time,” he recalls. Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains and Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit are two revelatory films he cites, along with the work of Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi and Jafar Panah. “It was the use of cinematic language that really stood out to me in Iranian films, the way they were able to speak about the political situation in Iran, but were obviously getting around censorship by the use of metaphor and symbolism, and using cinematic language in a different way.”

It’s a very deliberate aesthetic that’s a world away from the gritty and more direct cinema associated with British social realism. It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that Sharrock, despite training at Screen Academy Scotland in Edinburgh, chose to make his first feature outside the UK.

That was Pikadero, a delightfully skew-whiff romance following a 20-something couple from the Basque country who are unable to consummate their fledgeling romance because both are broke and can’t afford a place of their own. “Making my first feature not only in the Basque country but also in Basque, is a pretty strange entry point for a Scottish filmmaker into the industry,” admits Sharrock. “But I think it was liberating. I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to make a film like that in Scotland somehow. I think sometimes when you go to other places, when you're outside of your own country, you have more confidence to take risks.”

We should all be thankful that he took the plunge with Pikadero because Limbo is not only the finest British film of the year, but it’s also a beautifully humane response to the refugee crisis that Patel and her ilk would prefer us to turn our backs on. Here, Sharrock’s hopeful cinema shines a light: “I really wanted to get rid of the sort of big subject, the big topic and just make it about [refugees] as individuals rather than statistics, a mass of people, the numbers that we're always reading. I just really wanted to bring it down to a human level.”

Limbo has its Scottish premiere at Glasgow Film Festival, screening 3-6 Mar, with a UK cinema release set for 30 Jul via MUBI