▶︎ Limbo screens in the BFI London Film Festival on 16 October 2020 on BFI Player and is coming soon to Mubi.

Letterboxed in a 4:3 frame, as if in an old television show, or on your Instagram scroll, a narrow road spills down toward the sea and the hills of a Scottish island rise up toward the sky. It’s a scene most familiar from aesthetically pleasing tourist photographs and advertisements to “visit Scotland”. But beyond the frame, life is not so picturesque for the refugees caught in limbo between the homes they have been forced to leave behind and the lives that they hope to build in the UK.

Trapped in this temporal and spatial purgatory is Omar (Amir El-Masry), who has journeyed to Scotland from Syria with his instrument – his grandfather’s oud, always carried at his side as a material reminder of his connection to home – and the inescapable baggage of trauma, exile and homesickness. An acclaimed musician back in Damascus, he fears that he will not be able to play again. Here, in this nowhere land, it just doesn’t feel right.

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Amir El-Masry as Omar, Ola Orebiyi as Wasef, Kwabena Ansah as Abedi and Vikash Bhai as Farhad in Limbo

Accompanying Omar on his quest for asylum are Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an optimistic soul from Afghanistan, along with Ghanian Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Nigerian Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), who all share a dilapidated house. Together, they hang out at the jetty, the park, a farm, the fishery.

Yet the vast, bleak splendour of the landscape does nothing to counter their discomfort in sub-zero temperatures with no coats, no proper income, and no regular contact with loved ones. “There was a better signal than this in the Mediterranean,” reckons one of the men. Omar uses his mobile phone to play back old footage of his oud concerts, but it’s virtually useless as a means of communication. Instead he relies on the island’s only phone box. The see-through glass shelter becomes a portal to his parents and his past, a gateway to memories of food and music. It almost – but not quite – shuts out the unceasing wind.

As Omar and the other men navigate the island, they also learn to navigate the contradictions of Scottish culture. Through the refugees’ interactions with the island’s locals, Limbo captures something of the variance between political rhetoric that Scotland is a welcoming place, open to all, and the realities of a country that, like everywhere else, has problems with racism. Teenagers and adults alike casually throw racist remarks at Omar (is he Al-Qaeda, does he make bombs and rape women?) before offering him a ride into town (they don’t want him to get cold). The absurdity would be funny if his attempts to negotiate the strange environment weren’t so fraught with sadness and deprivation; this is a place where animal lives are worth more to white people than those of fellow humans.

Nevertheless, despite the austere conditions, the characters find humour and companionship. Their only furniture is a small, old-fashioned television from the donation centre, which provides a range of props and gadgets that become a recurring joke throughout the film. Discussions about racism between men of colour are delivered with wry humour. And Farhad offers a continuous stream of comic relief: from his obsession with Freddie Mercury to his love for a stolen chicken (Freddie Jnr, whose incongruous clucking around the house is a source of great delight), he is an ever-cheerful foil to Omar’s more sombre presence.

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Limbo (2020)

Of course, even Farhad has his reasons for taking his chances in the hostile environment of the UK’s immigration system. His brief but exquisitely delivered testimony is as poignant and touching as more visceral and lengthy scenes involving Omar, and had me reaching for the tissues.

El-Masry’s performance as Omar is absorbing throughout; Bhai’s as Farhad achieves nuance and pathos with remarkably little dialogue. The pair carry the film with aplomb. Ola Orebiyi and Kwabena Ansah deserve praise too, capturing both the tired anger and playful resistance that are coping mechanisms for the stranded men. Abedi’s role-play in a ‘cultural awareness’ session is a masterclass in subtly undermining the white instructors.

Visually clever, and by turns witty and moving (director Ben Sharrock never sacrifices feeling for aesthetic), Limbo ends as it begins – with uncertainty. There are no answers to the men’s questions, no sureties in their quests for survival.

But the film serves to remind us, at a moment when empathy often feels in short supply, that the real boats crossing the North Sea are carrying real people. People with families, hobbies, traditions, and songs. It’s a reminder, without ever being piteous, that when we watch television news or footage framed by social media feeds that we’re only seeing a partial story.

As Omar takes to the village hall stage to share his music in the film’s closing scene, the letterboxed aspect ratio changes: it expands to widescreen. Look beyond your limited worldview, Limbo says, and see the bigger, more beautiful, and more complicated picture.

Originally published: 15 October 2020