The filmmaker speaks with Ian Wang about his sophomore feature Limbo playing at London Film Festival 2020
In his whimsical new comedy-drama, Ben Sharrock finds Limbo not between heaven and hell, but on the remote Scottish island where a beleaguered, deadpan Omar (Amir El-Masry), once a musician in Syria, awaits the result of his asylum request. The film, which Ben developed alongside wife and producer Irune Gurtubai, portrays refugee experiences with a rare and poignant levity. I spoke with Ben about why he wanted to tell this story, the barriers faced by Scottish filmmakers, and releasing a film in lockdown.
Your first film, Pikadero, was produced entirely independently. What has the transition into a larger project been like?
One of the major differences was having a lot of different voices in the process. I made Pikadero straight after film school – Irune and I hadn't technically graduated when we finished it – and it was essentially self-financed, so it was more a pure creative exercise, but with that appetite for trying to break through as well.
Going into Limbo, I knew I wanted to make something about the refugee crisis because of my connection to Syria, where I’d lived during film school. Irune and I also went to refugee camps in Southern Algeria and worked there with an NGO.
The initial funding came from the Scottish Film Talent Network (SFTN). They gave us a lot of flexibility – it was part of their first feature development program, but of course we already had Pikadero, it just wasn’t formally funded. So we were in this gap where they just trusted us and said, “Go and do your thing.”
As a Scottish filmmaker, do you think regional elitism is still a problem in British film?
I do think it’s a big issue. It’s really difficult for Scottish and regional filmmakers to make that breakthrough. We’re disadvantaged in comparison to people with direct access to the industry in London.
There’s a massive cost implication: it’s expensive to travel or go to film school in London. I went to Screen Academy Scotland and got a scholarship; I wouldn't have been able to afford to go to a school like NFTS (The National Film and Television School). It’s a shame that people from Scotland have to work a lot harder to be seen by the industry.
At the same time, that disadvantage really motivated me and Irune to do something different to stand out, and that drive is what led us to make Pikadero.
One aspect of Limbo I like is the way it explores the individual backgrounds of its characters, rather than treating refugees as a homogenous group.
Part of my process was starting with a list of things I wanted to avoid when approaching this topic: using a Western character as a vehicle, or sensationalising the subject matter. I wanted to focus on the refugee experience from a human point of view.
Then there was a huge amount of research. I spoke to people who’d been through the asylum system, and to some of my friends from Syria. There was one person in particular who I became closer with. His story really connected with what I was thinking about with Omar and the idea that he’s suffering from grief, from the loss of his former identity.
There was so much research I was consumed by it, but at some point I had to let go. Instead of writing a ‘refugee character’, I had to write someone human, whose identity isn’t connected to that refugee label.
I want to ask about the oud, the Middle Eastern instrument which Omar carries with him and which symbolises that grief you described.
The oud narrative was inspired by a real story I found, about a musician who went across the Mediterranean with his oud. I was also influenced by the use of symbolism in Iranian cinema, how you can talk about something much bigger through metaphor.
Then obviously the big issue was... Omar has to the play the oud! So Amir had 4 months of oud lessons in London, and continued those over Skype while we were filming. We also brought on an oud consultant for the shoot.
Limbo was due to premiere at Cannes before the festival was shelved. What has it been like releasing the film in lockdown?
When I started this process, Cannes was the dream, so to actually go and do that was incredible, even without the physical festival.
Then we had the physical world premiere in Toronto. It was a shame we weren’t there, but social media became this incredible tool to experience the response. It’s not ideal, but we were able to still feel that love and excitement.