Seldom has a film been more accurately titled than Ben Sharrock’s Limbo, which centers on the plight of a young Syrian refugee living at an asylum center on a Scottish island while he waits for the gears of justice to grind through their motions and determine his fate. He’s not suffering terribly from one day to the next—the refugees are not held in jail cells, and no abusive guards or violent fellow refugees figure in this story—but he’s stuck in the sort of mediocre, boring, absurdist uncertainty that can be even harder to bear.
Limbo begins with its best scene, which perfectly expresses the bewilderment Omar (Amir El-Masry) feels as he waits and waits to learn his fate. Helga (Sidse Babette Knudsen), placed in the exact center of the frame and dressed in out-of-fashion clothing, begin dancing spasmodically to Hot Chocolate’s “It Started with a Kiss.” Her nerdy colleague Boris (Kenneth Collard) first observes, then joins in, dancing even more awkwardly. A cut reveals a group of young men watching, stone-faced, without a clue as to why they are being treated to this odd spectacle. Things get friendlier between the dancers, but each time Boris gets too presumptive, Helga moves him back, until finally he grabs her ass, she slaps him, and it is revealed that the whole scene was staged as a lesson for the benefit of the young men, refugees from various parts of the world being instructed in appropriate manners for Western Europe
It’s a bizarrely funny scene, and what sticks with you is the mismatch between the good intentions of the instructors and incomprehension by which the lesson is received by the target audience. There’s more than a bit of Waiting for Godot in Limbo, despite the director’s emphasis of the specificity of the location (the asylum center is fictional, but the film gives you a fine look at the several of the Western Isles, including North Uist, South Uist, and Benbecula) and the back stories of the various characters.
When we first meet Omar, he has a cast on his arm, which prevents him from playing his beloved oud, which he carries everywhere like some kind of protective talisman. His parents are in Turkey, but his brother has remained in Syria, and Omar feels shamed at taking the “coward’s” path by emigrating. His only connection to his family these days is via phone calls from an isolated outdoor phone booth, another nicely absurd touch.
The other refugees are sketched in more hastily. Omar’s roommate Farhad (Vikash Bhai), is a cheerful fellow from Afghanistan and a big fan of Freddie Mercury. Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) aren’t related, but told immigration officials they are brothers—and they do quarrel like brothers, to the point where their relationship is almost broken when Abedi rightfully suggests that Wasef has no hope of playing in the Premier League. These men are not perfect, but they’re a likeable lot, and you want the best for them. You may even start to feel that the purpose of the indeterminate waiting period is less to allow a fair ruling on their cases, and more to get them to give up by their own volition.
Limbo is a comedy, but a dry and understated one that never picks on the refugees. Sharrock pulls off the tricky task of selling a story based on a passive central character, albeit one who is passive partly due to his circumstances. This film has won a fair share of accolades already: it has been nominated for two BAFTA’s and has won a number of other awards, including Best Film at the Cairo International Film Festival, the Youth Jury Award at the San Sebastián Film Festival, and a British Independent Film Award for producer Irune Gurtubai. | Sarah Boslaugh