By Tyler Aquilina
May 01, 2021 at 10:00 AM EDT
Amir El-Masry, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, and Vikash Bhai in 'Limbo.'
| Credit: Focus Features

When you imagine a movie about the European refugee crisis, it probably doesn't look anything like Limbo.

Writer-director Ben Sharrock's wry, heartfelt (and BAFTA-nominated) sophomore feature follows a young Syrian man named Omar (Amir El-Masry) as he awaits asylum on a dreary Scottish island. He shares a flat with Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), who watch Friends DVDs and quibble about whether Ross and Rachel were on a break; and Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghani man who's obsessed with Freddie Mercury (and names a chicken after the Queen singer). They fill their days with classes in Western social customs, watching the mail van come and go, and waiting — lots of waiting.

Sharrock, meanwhile, fills the film with deadpan humor and meticulous framing that recalls the work of Wes Anderson, Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, and Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman. He fills it, too, with empathy and compassion for his characters, and an expansive vision that eschews cliché and cultural tourism.

"I wanted to humanize the refugee experience and take a different approach to it," the Scottish filmmaker tells EW. "This film is not about refugees, it's about human beings. The point of it is no matter where you're from, you can relate to these people just as people."

With Limbo now playing in select theaters, Sharrock spoke to EW about making the film feel authentic, shooting on the remote Scottish Uist islands, and how hats factored into the story.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What initially inspired you to make this movie?

BEN SHARROCK: It's something that stems back just over 10 years. I was living in Syria, in Damascus, the year before the Civil War started, studying Arabic and politics. That was my undergraduate degree, before I went into filmmaking, and as part of that degree you studied a lot about Orientalism and the construction of the other. Then flash forward to when I was in film school, I actually ended up going out to the Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria, working with an NGO there, and staying with a family in the camps. Flash forward again, the global refugee crisis became very prevalent in the media, and I was really struck by the representation of refugees, and felt that there was this process of dehumanization going on where we had the demonizing of refugees on one side, and the pity of refugees on the other, and also we were looking at refugees as just numbers and statistics. I felt like I really wanted to make a film about this subject matter, and set off on a journey to write this screenplay.

What kind of research did you do for the film to help bring an authenticity to the story?

There was a lot of trial and error in the scriptwriting process, because I had this list of things I wanted to avoid, such as sensationalizing the subject matter and using a Western character as a vehicle to tell the story. There's so much material on the subject, so obviously I had all of those things available to me, but also, I was testing my ideas with people that have been through the asylum process in Scotland and with people that work with refugees on a day-to-day basis. I spoke to people that were waiting six years to for their asylum claim. So I was trying to do as much as possible in terms of grounding that research in truth. It was also a case of putting myself into the film, and also speaking to the people that I'd made friends with in Syria and thinking back to what connected me to them, even though we're from different cultures and things like that.

Ben Sharrock on the set of 'Limbo.'
| Credit: Saskia Coulson / Focus Features

How did you go about calibrating the tone between the heaviness of the subject matter and these moments of humor?

It was very difficult, and I was constantly trying to use all of the tools available to balance that, starting in the writing process. As I said, I was testing the humor with people that had been through the asylum system. It always came back with a resounding, "Yes. That's actually a really good way to approach this subject, to use humor rather than focusing on the more tragic, sensationalized stories that we often see." Then in the rehearsals, we were balancing the level of performance so things are played quite straight. If it goes too far one way, if you go too comedic, it's difficult to then come back and pivot into the dramatic side. And then a lot of that feeling of humor or playfulness comes from the compositions, the use of color, the lens choice, how the characters are framed. It's just lots of balancing in so many different ways. Even with costumes. If a hat was too bright, and made the frame seem too playful, we'd be taking the hat out and changing it for a different color to tone that down.

Tell me about working with the cast — how did you collaborate with the actors to build these characters?

That really started in the auditions, because we had a very thorough audition process. Part of that was doing chemistry tests, and working with the actors in groups, and also doing some kind of experimental auditions, particularly with Farhad. Vikash went through quite a lot of rounds, and in one of the later rounds I asked him to come in fully in character, and he did a half-hour-long improvised interview in character. And then we had a really good rehearsal period, and as part of that, we engaged with a single men's Syrian refugee group in Edinburgh. So there was that direct kind of consultancy between the actors and people who'd been through the asylum system.

That rehearsal process was not so much about running the lines or things like that; it's actually just having the space and time to talk about the [characters'] backstories and all the depth in between the lines, and giving the actors agency to give depth to their stories. With Vikash, for example, we set up conversations between him and the Afghan Society in London, and got him Dari [language] lessons as well, so he could really immerse himself in Afghan culture and then bring that to the table.

Vikash Bhai (left) and Amir El-Masry in 'Limbo.'
| Credit: Focus Features

What was it like filming on that island? I read that this was the first movie to be shot on Uist. Is that true?

It is true. We're the first feature film to ever be shot there. I wrote the script, in part, on Uist, so that's kind of how we ended up shooting there. I wrote the island into the script. It was amazing, but it was extremely challenging. We were in a battle with the island all the time. We were shooting [with] close to gale force winds constantly, and some scenes we had to return to five times just because we couldn't work in those conditions. We'd have six guys holding down lighting stands; otherwise everything would just blow away. It was exhausting, but totally worth it.

I'd imagine that contributed to the atmosphere and mood of the film as well.

That's the thing. One side of it is what you're capturing on camera, and seeing that landscape and that environment that's not really been seen before on camera. But the other side of it is how much it actually feeds into the creative energy and the performances. When you see Omar out in this landscape, that's real, and he's feeling all of that; he's really far from the camera in these massive wide shots, and also waiting around in between takes. All of these things are feeding into the performances and the creative energy. It wouldn't have been the same film had we not shot there.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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