By Joel Kalkopf
15th August 2021

Ben Sharrock's 'Limbo' opens in the middle of a "cultural awareness" class that takes place on a remote Scottish island, with a man and woman awkwardly and hilariously dancing centre screen, in front of a classroom full of beady-eyed and blank-faced refugees. Straight away, audiences will be all too aware that 'Limbo' will be unlike any refugee crisis film they've seen before.

The film's title, 'Limbo', refers to the purgatory-like setting that we find our characters placed in. Here, on this remote coastal island, seemingly far away from any semblance of metropolitan society, is a group of refugees, awaiting asylum and a safe passage to the next chapter of their lives. Whilst residing here, they cannot work, and there isn't much in the way of entertainment - but they do have these "cultural classes" to attend to, and donated DVDs of 'Friends' to get by. As they wait for the letter granting their asylum to come through the mailbox, we will get to know the characters a little better, and if everything falls into place as Sharrock intended, then audiences will finally witness a non-sensationalised, human story with a warranted voice.

Thankfully, Sharrock ('Pikadero') succeeds where few other features on this topic have, bringing a poignant wit to the foray, managing to craft a wholesome and heartwarming film that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.


Our protagonist, Omar (Amir El-Masry, 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker'), is a semi-famous oud player from Syria, and while his parents have fled to Turkey awaiting his asylum so he can bring them to London, his brother,Nabil stayed to fight with the rebels in Syria. He lives on the island with three other refugees, Wasef, Hamad, and his closest friend on the island, Farhad (Vikash Bhai). Wasef wants to play for Chelsea Football Club, Hamad is just happy to get another chance, and all Farhad is looking forward to a wearing a suit and working in an office. While Omar carries the weight of this film, it's Farhad who brings a magnetic warmth and humanising perspective to the film. There is a scene early on where Omar asks Farhad how he knows if a woman is smiling at him if her face is covered, and in one of the more touching moments, Farhad proves to him how you can see a smile with the eyes. It's a touching sentiment that encapsulates the heartwarming nature of the film, and what essentially separates it from so many of its predecessors.

Director Sharrock is not a refugee himself, but that doesn't detract from what he is able to achieve in bringing these human stories to the screen. 'Limbo' is a fictional tale, but clearly is an amalgamation of a melting pot of stories and character studies of this very real-world crisis. El-Masry especially is able to bring that humanising element to the fold, driving the point home that whilst this may be one person's story, there are countless more that are far greater than the numbers and statistics we see on the news.

As they wait for the letter granting their asylum to come through the mailbox, we will get to know the characters a little better, and if everything falls into place as Sharrock intended, then audiences will finally witness a non-sensationalised, human story with a warranted voice.

A noteworthy element Sharrock brings to his film is the way he uses the oud case as a weight on Omar's journey. Omar takes his oud everywhere, but mostly refuses to play it as it reminds him too much of the home he left behind. As the seasons get colder and the environment becomes increasingly harsher, the case seems to bear greater weight on Omar, weighed down by the baggage. It's a little on the nose and not incredibly subtle, but I am more than willing to forgive it as the impact surpasses the brazenness.

Additionally, Sharrock tells this story with a confidence behind the camera that exceeds his experience, putting so much attention to the settings, costumes and blocking. The subjects are frequently shot as isolated figures against a vast desolate landscape, sweeping the camera slowly across the barren lands that instil the state of purgatory the characters find themselves in, with the aid of some striking visuals. But he also knows how to shoot his subjects close up, consciously exuding the warm nature of the film. Sharrock trusts his cinematography and setting to tell a story, and there is no wonder 'Limbo' received the attention is garnered on the circuit, even resulting in BAFTA nominations.

A wonderfully heartwarming gem that leans heavily into telling a human refugee story, 'Limbo' holds all the right cards, setting it apart as a must-see film. Funny without belittling, sad without being tragic, and relatable without pitting, this is a rewarding film that will leave audiences smiling, and hopefully, no longer demonising the refugee asylum crisis.

Looking for more Melbourne International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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