Strangers in a strange land: how films are reframing the refugee experience

Ben Sharrock’s Limbo is a tragicomic portrait of a group of asylum seekers passing time on a remote Scottish island. As it arrives in UK cinemas, we examine a growing body of films over the past two decades which have presented the reality of seeking refuge and asylum in new ways.

29 July 2021

By Agnes Woolley

Limbo (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Limbo is in UK cinemas from 30 July and streaming on Mubi from 23 September.

Ben Sharrock’s Limbo opens in a remote Outer Hebridean community centre where a group of male asylum seekers are gathered for a class called ‘Cultural Awareness: 101’.

They look on blankly as their female English-language teacher takes them through a lesson on sexual etiquette. To illustrate, she and her male colleague perform an excruciating slow dance to Hot Chocolate’s ‘It Started with a Kiss’ at an imaginary disco. The awkward mime culminates in a slap across the cheek for the teacher’s overzealous dance partner. The students watch, nonplussed.

This opening scene is a stylistic statement of intent in a film that takes an unexpected approach to its subject matter – the experience of refugees – carefully balancing a sense of the absurd against human tragedy. Even as the surreal comedy of the moment unfolds, we’re reminded that these classes are preparing the claimants for a life in the UK that may never be realised.

While a comedy about refugees sounds like uneasy viewing, it proves to be an effective strategy for humanising without sentimentalising, and Sharrock’s deadpan humour helps deliver a heartfelt account of the soul-crushing wait for the outcome of an asylum claim.

Limbo (2020)

Set among refugees who have been dispersed to this sparsely populated Scottish island, Limbo arrives just as the UK government is rumoured to be considering Australia’s controversial practice of ‘off-shoring’ asylum seekers as a model for its own border controls. Amir El-Masry plays Omar, a young Syrian musician destined to await the outcome of his asylum claim with roommate Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan and housemates, Ghanaian Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Nigerian Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), who have posed as brothers to better their chances of being granted asylum.

Limbo is the latest in a line of films that has offered a different kind of refugee imaginary over the last two decades.

Limbo is Sharrock’s second feature, and hones the dry humour and careful composition of his 2015 debut Pikadero, which also offers a comic take on a serious subject: Spain’s deep economic crisis. But in turning to issues of asylum, Sharrock must contend with a set of visual tropes that have become all too familiar: crowded border sites, sprawling refugee camps and unseaworthy dinghies densely packed with people.

An antidote to this crowded visual landscape, Limbo is the latest in a line of films that has offered a different kind of refugee imaginary over the last two decades, one that reframes the often objectifying humanitarian gaze and turns away from narrative empathy as the benchmark for ethical interaction with ‘others’. The result is a contemporary canon of films that is both formally and generically diverse, even as it grapples with longstanding ethical quandaries about the representation of disenfranchised groups.

His House (2020)

Journeys into the unknown

As last year’s smart asylum horror His House shows, genre can be an effective means of exploring the traumatic legacies of forced migration. But if Remi Weekes’s film – about a couple from South Sudan who find hidden horrors in their new house in a dilapidated estate in England – has helped centre refugee stories, it is also the logical product of two decades in which filmmakers have experimented with new ways of representing refugees on screen.

In 2002, Stephen Frears’s noir thriller, Dirty Pretty Things also offered a stylised, otherworldly account of the taxi drivers, sex workers and cleaners who underwrite London’s standing as a global city, where shift work folds time in on itself in an unrecognisable capital of backroom factories, anonymous hotel rooms and subterranean hospital morgues. Responding to an anxious preoccupation with ‘economic’ migrants and ‘bogus’ asylum seekers in late 1990s Britain, migratory narratives are rerouted such that, rather than moving between fixed poles of departure and arrival, the characters are constantly on the move to evade immigration enforcers.

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Of course, perpetual motion is good raw material for powering a narrative. Desperate characters setting out in search of a better life in the most perilous of circumstances lend themselves easily to the demands of plot and dramatic tension.

This dynamic is mined to memorable effect in Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian Children of Men (2006). Leaning on conventions from both the thriller and the road movie, Cuarón uses unbroken shots to track lives lived on the road and the swirling chaos of refugee camps in an apocalyptic vision that now seems more like nightmarish realism than speculative fiction. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s virtuoso camerawork captures the fugitive and peripatetic sensibility typical of refugee movement, but also often lags behind the characters to survey the landscape, offering a subversive and unofficial version of the national(ist) narrative depicted at the level of plot, in which all ‘fugees’ (foreign nationals) are rounded up and sent to camps.

Bigger budget films, sitting more squarely within generic categories, have also channelled refugee themes with varying degrees of success. As state borders collapse in the Brad Pitt-starring zombie apocalypse film, World War Z (2013), the world population become ‘refugees’ from a global zombie plague. Notably, much of the action plays out in Jerusalem, providing an inevitable, though perhaps inadvertent, commentary on one of the world’s most protracted refugee contexts: Palestine.

Jupiter’s Moon (2017)

In other-worldly outings, Kornél Mundruczó’s sci-fi thriller Jupiter’s Moon (2017) features a Syrian refugee who develops the ability to fly after being shot by border police, and Neill Blomkamp has twice explored the dramatic conflicts thrown up by migration through a heavily allegorical science fiction mode: the eerily affecting District 9 (2009), and the bigger budget follow-up, Elysium (2013) which takes place on a space colony.

Contemporary documentary makers have been addressing the thorny questions posed by refugee narratives to audiences and filmmakers alike – namely, how should we bear witness to the refugee experience?

Returning to earth, contemporary documentary makers have been addressing the thorny questions posed by refugee narratives to audiences and filmmakers alike – namely, how should we bear witness to the refugee experience? In part, their answer has been to draw on both genre conventions and more experimental styles to reframe refugees beyond the familiar paradigms of abjection and dependency.

Part activist intervention, part thriller, On the Bride’s Side (2014) follows a group of refu gees who disguise themselves as a wedding party in order to travel from Italy to Sweden under the radar of border police. Presented as the protagonists of a high-stakes road movie, the refugee characters become co-conspirators in a rebellious act of autonomy.

Fire at Sea (2016)

Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (2016) and Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow (2017) reach for a more aestheticised approach to the topic by utilising metaphor and abstraction, while Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s forthcoming documentary Flee turns to animation as a form elastic enough to accommodate the hardships faced by refugees without fetishising their victimhood.

Shooting from the hip

The recent flourishing of refugee-led films, enabled by widespread access to basic digital filmmaking technology, allows audiences a first-hand insight into forced migration. Shot and co-directed by Abou Bakar Sidibé, Les Sauteurs (2016) records the daily existence of a group of men living in the forests above the Spanish enclave of Melilla, waiting for an opportune moment to jump the fence from Moroccan to Spanish territory.

Channelling the video diary format, Revenir (2018) follows Kumut Imesh as he films himself retracing the same journey that he himself took when forced to flee civil war in Ivory Coast and settle in France.

Midnight Traveler (2019)

In a similar vein, Hassan Fazili’s Midnight Traveler (2019) is part video diary, part home movie, which documents his family’s journey overland from Afghanistan to Hungary. Yet here, Fazili and his filmmaker wife Fatima Hossaini keep their camera phones trained closely on capturing quotidian family highs and lows as a counterpoint to the extraordinary circumstances in which they take place.

One of the most striking insights into the global asylum-industrial complex is provided by Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani’s documentation of life inside the now notorious detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, where he was imprisoned for several years. The footage Boochani captured on a mobile phone was produced into a film directed by Netherlands-based Iranian filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani in 2017. Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time documents the daily reality of Australia’s punitive asylum management policies, but we also see through Boochani’s eyes – and through the bars of the prison – his interactions with the people of Manus, similarly caught up in this dehumanising system.

This kind of first-person filmmaking generates an intimacy that humanises at the same time as it documents. In all these cases, footage is shot by refugees and then edited into feature-length projects by filmmakers and production outfits working in more stable environments. The resulting films provide a unique view of refugee movement in the 21st century, enabled by a cross-border solidarity between citizens and ‘non-citizens’.

Last Resort (2000)

In all these cases time unspools in the act of waiting; lives are whiled away in camps or detention centres, under tarpaulin at unofficial border sites in Calais or Melilla, or waiting for the results of an asylum claim. This is Sharrock’s subject in Limbo.

Perhaps understandably, there are very few films about immigration detention or the waiting entailed in asylum claims. But as well as Naeem Mohaiemen’s brilliantly ludic Tripoli Cancelled (2017), about a man trapped in a disused Greek airport, an important stylistic and thematic precursor to Limbo is Pawel Pawlikowski’s understated drama Last Resort (2000), which finds Tanya and her son Artyom detained in a derelict seaside resort turned detention centre. As in Limbo, Pawlikowski’s abstracted visual aesthetic and ethereal soundscape bring an eerie, surrealist quality to what would otherwise be a more conventional social realist film.

Time unspools in the act of waiting; lives are whiled away in camps or detention centres.

Although the protagonists of Last Resort are ‘refugees by mistake’, both films explore the cruelties of a system that refuses asylum claimants the right to work for as long as their case is being heard, which can take months, if not years. Where Tanya finds herself drawn into sex work as a means of facilitating her escape, the housemates in Limbo while away their time watching pirated copies of the sitcom Friends; a very different kind of house share to the one they are forced into.

In both cases, stagnation comes with a loss of dignity and sense of self. Omar’s oud, the musical instrument he carries wherever he goes on the island, takes on a poignant significance; it is a link to home but its silent strings also come to denote his own voicelessness and lack of agency in the asylum process.

Le Havre (2011)

Limbo’s tragicomic tone exists somewhere between Wes Anderson and Aki Kaurismäki, with the deadpan camerawork of Palestinian director Elia Suleiman. Indeed, Limbo follows on the heels of Kaurismäki’s unfinished refugee trilogy, which began with Le Havre in 2011 and was followed up by The Other Side of Hope in 2017.

Kaurismäki’s noirish, humorous take on Europe’s confrontation with growing numbers of refugees strikes a similar kind of balance as Limbo between humanistic narrative identification and ironic distance. The understated performance styles cultivated by both filmmakers – an almost totally flat affect – suggests a strategy to deflate the often hyperbolic representations of refugee tragedy in more mainstream representations.

Eschewing the familiar visual spectacle of crowded boats and borders, the mise en scène of these films is spare, depopulated, focusing on individuals within the landscape. Yet those individuals have well-guarded internal lives and are rarely permitted to tug on audience heartstrings, suggesting a more critical kind of narrative empathy.

Limbo (2020)

Still lives

The characters in Limbo are caught in suspended animation by Sharrock’s prolific use of locked-off shots (also preferred by Pawlikowski in Last Resort), in which the camera is fixed in one position. While conveying an inevitable feeling of inertia, they also deflate heightened emotion, encouraging instead a slower and more critical contemplation from audiences. The pervasive feeling of claustrophobia is intensified by Sharrock’s use of a 4:3 aspect ratio, which compresses the vast skies of the Hebrides into the circumscribed existence of the film’s protagonists. Capturing the most painterly of shots, the locked-off camera ensures that viewers are outside the frame, looking on. It is an objective and impassive gaze, one that encourages deliberation rather than immersion.

With few POV shots, far from being ‘in the shoes’ of the refugee, in Limbo we are instead confronted with the unknowability of the experience.

This is significant when it comes to representations of refugees, because so much of the time we are asked to identify with those we see on screen – indeed, great claims are made for empathetic identification as a means of engendering prosocial action. With few POV shots, far from being ‘in the shoes’ of the refugee, in Limbo we are instead confronted with the unknowability of the experience. It is an antidote to the immersive rhetoric and techniques of virtual reality and augmented reality which have been used in recent years by campaigners on refugee rights.

The distance created by Sharrock’s deadpan camerawork is also responsible for much of the film’s comic effects. The camera’s impassive gaze is often at odds with what it captures in its static frame: a man sobbing into a phone box in the middle distance while the camera is focused in the foreground on a conversation between Omar and a fellow asylum seeker about a kitten he follows on Instagram.

Limbo (2020)

The incongruity between these simultaneously unfolding conversations provokes a jolt of mirth but, importantly, viewers are denied an insight into the tragedy unfolding in the phone box. We are definitely not party to this man’s experience. And as we listen in on Omar’s own phone conversation moments later, the camera pans across to witness the man’s receding back, hunched over in grief. It’s a moment that suggests the limits of empathetic identification even as it bears witness to such terrible anguish.

Although Sharrock complicates realist aesthetics in his film, Limbo remains politically engaged. It means to show the deleterious effects of a global border system that abuses and dehumanises those fleeing persecution and abject poverty. The image of the frozen body of one of the characters in the snow captures the end result of this system; its coldness and inhumanity.

Moreover, flat affect is both a source of comedy and a sign of trauma. Abedi and Wasef’s hellish boat crossing, Farhad’s treatment as a gay man in Afghanistan and Omar’s experiences of the war in Syria are all hinted at but never described in detail. Trauma represses. And Sharrock’s decision to hold back on the emotion serves his comic style even as it indicates the underlying damage it does to people; a numbness felt in the aftermath of extreme ordeal. In this way, Sharrock balances the ironic and the empathetic. Omar is a comically deadpan character, but there is something like trauma beneath his flat delivery.

Further reading

Limbo gives a Scottish welcome to four far-flung refugees

By Rebecca Harrison

Limbo gives a Scottish welcome to four far-flung refugees

Fire at Sea review: Gianfranco Rosi measures the migration crisis

By Trevor Johnston

Fire at Sea review: Gianfranco Rosi measures the migration crisis

Jupiter’s Moon review: a refugee takes super-flight

By Michael Leader

Jupiter’s Moon review: a refugee takes super-flight

His House gives a displaced couple no happy home

By Kim Newman

His House gives a displaced couple no happy home

Midnight Traveller review: home movies in exile

By Nikki Baughan

Midnight Traveller review: home movies in exile

The Other Side of Hope review: Aki Kaurismäki salutes the down and dogged

By Nick James

The Other Side of Hope review: Aki Kaurismäki salutes the down and dogged

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