Ben Sharrock, 33, captured the 2016 EIFF Michael Powell Award for his debut feature Pikadero, a Basque language comedy drama. Now the Edinburgh-native writer-director has returned with Limbo, a deadpan comedy about asylum seekers housed on an isolated Scottish island. The first film to be shot entirely on Uist, the tale focuses on Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian refugee and musician struggling to cope with windy winters, enforced housemates, and the seemingly eternal wait for an unclear future.
How did the idea for Limbo come about?
My undergraduate degree was in Arabic and Politics, and I spent my third year in Syria, in Damascus, the year before the civil war started. During my time there I tried to integrate, played in the rugby team, and did a little theatre. Then, after a module on Middle Eastern cinema, I decided I wanted to go to film school and did my dissertation of Arabic and Muslim representations in American cinema and TV.
Flash forward to film school and a project in the Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria. I lived with a family in the camps and worked on a short film about how being a refugee affects identity. We weren’t able to make the film – we couldn’t get insurance because Al-Qaeda were operating in the area – but this interest stayed. As the refugee crisis became more prevalent in the media, I still had this idea to make a film about the subject matter.
Syria is not known as a big rugby-playing nation.
No, they are not (laughs). The team there was called the Damascus Zenobians. They were originally started by a group of expats, but when I was there the expats had gone, so it was all Syrians and I ended up coaching. We went to Lebanon to play a tournament against teams from all over the Middle East. One of the teams was the UN team – they were Fijian UN soldiers and were absolutely amazing, running rings around everyone. They won that tournament.
Once you had Limbo’s script, what was the process for getting it made?
We were in a fortunate position in that my debut film, Pikadero, won the Michael Powell Award at the EIFF in 2016. It was quite successful in festivals, and off that we got attention. So although writing Limbo was this long, painful experience, we already had relationships. Once Limbo was ready we had a direct line to the right people, and fortunately the script went down well and the funders wanted on board.
And how did you end up filming on Uist?
Uist happened because, embarrassingly, I wanted to go to a remote Scottish island to write the screenplay. I basically looked on Google Maps, saw Uist, then travelled around on Street View. It looked just vast and remote, and didn’t have that holiday feel.
So I jumped on a plane and ended up in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. I would write in the morning and travel around the islands looking for locations in the afternoon, walking around trying to think what Omar would think.
Were there any particular things you were searching for in your shooting location?
The idea is that it is a purgatorial island – this metaphor that they are really in purgatory. Uist kind of had that feeling, or you could find that in Uist if you looked in the right places and showed the right images.
I don’t know why exactly – I think there is a bleakness to the landscape, and it is flatter than some of the other islands so you can see the horizon and look down these roads that you know are going somewhere, but don’t know when they are going to end. That spoke to me in terms of Omar and the asylum claims, and the language that could be embedded in the film.
Did the locals know that they were standing in for purgatory?
I don’t think they did (laughs). Although they did know it was a fictional island. They knew that we weren’t showing Uist as Uist.
Your asylum seekers are from Syria, Afghanistan, Ghana and Nigeria. How did you ensure you got authentic representations?
That started in the scriptwriting research, but carried on throughout. Amir is British-Egyptian, but we gave him access to Syrians who had been through the asylum system. My old university teacher is actually his Syrian dialect coach – we brought her on board as a dialect coach and cultural consultant.
With the others, it was the same due diligence. Ola [Orebiy] and Kwabs [Ansah] have Nigerian and Ghanaian backgrounds, so that was scrutinising the things I had written and getting their input. Vikash [Bhai] is not from an Afghan background, so we set him up with the Afghan Society in London. He had that direct consultancy, and language lessons that ended up coming in very useful as well.
Were you looking for particular qualities in the actors you were choosing?
One of the qualities, and it sounds strange to say, is that I try to find people with interesting faces, because I know how close we are going to be lensing. There are times when we are an inch from the character’s face. That brings the audience closer – they start breathing with the characters – but you need a face that can carry contained emotion. Also, there is the deadpan style. Some actors can do that naturally, so it feels like it belongs to them rather than performing.
Scottish audiences will recognise your island’s shopkeeper, Sanjeev Kohli, a.k.a. Navid the shopkeeper in Still Game. How important is it for Limbo to connect to Scottish audiences?
That is a good question. I am a Scottish writer-director, and the film is set in Scotland and made by predominantly Scottish people, so it is something that belongs to the film industry of Scotland. And of course you want a Scottish audience to connect to it, and almost feel an ownership of the film.
But it is also a film that has an international outlook and overtly speaks to the wider world. It is Scotland going out to the world, rather than something looking in the way.
Was there a particular ‘Scottishness’ that you wanted your asylum seekers to meet?
No. One thing I wanted to avoid was this cultural reconciliation narrative. The island isn’t Uist, it is a fictional, metaphorical island relating to purgatory. The casting was deliberate: we have Kenneth [Collard], who is English, and Sidse [Babett Knudsen], who is Danish. Rather than being about Scottish islanders, it is about a pan-European attitude towards refugees.
Is it necessary for films to give realistic portrayals of asylum seeker processes and lifestyles?
What I wanted to do with this film was to show the human experience. It is almost like making a refugee film without making a refugee film: it is a film about people, and we can relate to them no matter who we are and who they are. I deliberately got rid of a lot of the mechanics of the asylum system because I feel like that was actually, in writing the film, pulling me away from that central human story.
Have you had any feedback from asylum seekers?
Yeah. Unfortunately we have not been able to show it as widely as we would have because of the pandemic, but we have shown it to people who have been through the asylum system. We had a particularly touching moment at the Zurich Film Festival where, in the Q&A, a guy stood up and was on the edge of tears. He said that was him 20 years ago, and thanked us. The feedback from actual refugees is what has the most value. Thankfully it has been very positive so far.
Limbo will receive its UK theatrical release on 30th July 2021