Review: Limbo is a superb refugee comedy-drama

Limbo (M, 104 minutes)

5 stars

Every now and then, a film comes along that lands its points perfectly. The number of films and television series that have been mounted about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers are legion, yet this one film may say it all.

It is all the more surprising that it deals with its very sensitive subject in a blend of comedy and drama. It is both elegant and poignant, funny and intelligent, and a remarkable achievement overall.

A scene from the poignant comedy-drama Limbo. Picture: Colin Tennant

A scene from the poignant comedy-drama Limbo. Picture: Colin Tennant

Limbo has come about through the experiences of a young Scottish filmmaker who spent some time working in the refugee camps in Syria before the country descended into its appalling civil war. Writer-director Ben Sharrock got the idea for the main character of his film while attending an oud concert in Damascus, and things took off from there.

His film is set on a fictional island in the Outer Hebrides where a group of Middle Eastern and West African men endure a half-life existence as they await approval of their requests for asylum or refugee status. The focus on single men was a deliberate creative decision. Taking the focus away from men accompanied by wives, children and other family members draws stark attention to the group that have been viewed with most intense suspicion by Western society.

The opening scenes are so funny. Cultural awareness tutors Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen, terrific in television series Borgen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard) are conducting a class, called Sex: Is a smile an invitation?, on acceptable behaviour towards a woman while dancing. In the northernmost rocky outcrops of Scotland, a class like this seems quite beside the point. The couple also teach English but from what we can tell of the language attainment of their students, there is little need for this either. Certainly not for Omar (Amir El-Masry) who is a fluent English speaker.

There is little chance of Omar and the rest of these blokes having the opportunity of a dance with a woman anytime soon. Moreover, the isolation, the endless wait, and the sensory deprivation are already biting, sapping self-belief and zest for life.

The wild beauty of the island is glorious, yet it can mean little to the detainees who can do nothing but wait, not even take a job at the fish processing plant. That said, the views that have been captured by cinematographer Nick Cooke of the Hebridean landscape, with its white sandy beaches, treeless expanses and rugged, rocky shores, are stunning.

The narrative focus is on four characters - Omar the Syrian, Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan and two west African brothers, Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) - who often appear in the same frame. The compositions of these four, as they wait their turn in the rain at the phone booth, or watch the local version of Postman Pat zipping around making deliveries with his favourite opera arias at full blast, are by turns comic and poignant. Much of the humour and pathos of these moments and similar scenes is the result of thoughtful camerawork and deft editing, and it makes for wonderful results.

Farhad, the character who most obviously invites tender humour, has already endured 32 months in detention. He has a wide, droopy-ended moustache like his idol, Freddie Mercury, who was also Zoroastrian.

Omar's tastes in music are more traditional, he plays the oud. However, he is beleaguered by an unexplained injury to one of his hands and a growing despair over whether in travelling to Scotland he has made the right decision. Separated from his parents in Istanbul and his older brother, Nabil, who remains in Syria, Omar carries with him an antique oud wherever he goes. It may appear eccentric but the family heirloom represents his identity.

From blatant aggression to incidental snub, the locals view these foreign interlopers with suspicion, but the film gently pokes fun at the Scots too. No one is spared, nor is anyone condemned.

With a combination of absurdist, deadpan humour, terrific performances, humanist vision and unique directorial style, Limbo reveals our shared humanity, and rests its case.

This story Refugee dramedy is simply superb first appeared on The Canberra Times.