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In Limbo: Understanding the Painful, Human Existence of Asylum Seekers

While Priti Patel and the tabloid press seek to protect our borders from those who need protection, one film has broken the mould, writes Deborah Shaw

Photo: Limbo

In LimboUnderstanding the Painful, Human Existence of Asylum Seekers

While Priti Patel and the tabloid press seek to protect our borders from those who need protection, one film has broken the mould, writes Deborah Shaw

The Home Secretary has made it patently clear that she doesn’t want even a modest number of asylum seekers arriving in the UK – pledging to “protect our borders” from those fleeing war and famine.

Through such language, asylum seekers are cast as dangerous ‘crimmigrants’ – a narrative repeated by much of the right-wing tabloid press. Indeed, a study by Cardiff University found that the British tabloids are the most negative in Europe towards asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. As a result, it has become harder for people to witness asylum seekers in their full humanity: as desperate people, attempting to escape desperate circumstances.

Cinema holds a privileged position in being able to counter this distorted image –redrawing our understanding of people who are disparaged in other areas of public life. Ironically, fiction often presents a more truthful picture than supposedly factual news. Through film, we can appreciate the lives and the stories of people who are otherwise seen as political targets or troublesome statistics.

Limbo, directed by Ben Sharrock, conforms to this idea. It has won multiple awards and is currently available to stream on Mubi, the curated art film streaming platform. 

Before shooting the film, Sharrock spoke to those involved in the asylum process – those who help people seeking asylum, and those who have been buffeted around by the asylum system. The finished product presents the fictional story of a group of all-male refugees housed in basic accommodation on a remote Scottish island. The film’s title speaks to the nature of their lives; on hold in space and time. Limbo is shot on location in North and South Uist in the Outer Hebrides.

Notably, the men are forced to attend English cultural lessons while their asylum applications are processed. These classes are the source of humour, directed at the teacher Helga (played by Borgen’s star Sidse Babett Knudsen). The film opens with Helga’s clumsy and frankly insulting attempts to teach her students about appropriate sexual behaviour through a hilarious dance routine to Hot Chocolate’s It Started with a Kiss.

Limbo skilfully navigates the terrain between humour and a serious drama. It balances moments of comic absurdity with the painful stories of the asylum seekers. At all times, it presents the perspective of the asylum seekers.

Its protagonist is Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian refugee separated from his parents in exile in Turkey and from his brother who has stayed to fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Omar is a gentle, homesick musician who carries his precious oud in a case wherever he goes, despite his broken arm. 

He is befriended by Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghan refugee whose hero is Freddie Mercury. Farhad is seeking asylum as, in his confession to Omar, “I cannot be myself back home”. Homosexuality is the love that dare not speak its name, even by Farhad himself.

The two other members of this situational friendship group are Nigerians – Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), who falsely claim to be brothers as they mistakenly believe that family kinship will help their case for asylum.

They are hopeful individuals in a broken system. They watch helplessly as the postman fails to deliver news about their claims for weeks on end. They are stranded, away from their families, clad in donated clothes, unable to work.

In one scene, Omar makes his way to the rudimentary medical centre to have his cast removed, to be greeted with a note that the doctor only attends once a month, weather permitting. In another scene, a group of asylum seekers (unlawfully) supplement their meagre allowance with some work at the local fish processing plant, but they are soon arrested and carted away in a police van. 

All of this takes place in winter, amid the brutal but beautiful backdrop of the island on which they have been abandoned. Watching the film, we are left wondering how many other similar stories are taking place in Britain today.

Limbo is an exercise in empathy. In her fascinating bookA Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind, Siri Hustvedt observes that “empathy comes from the German word Einfühlung… to feel one’s way into a work of art”. Hustvedt discusses the ways that writers of fiction and their readers (and in this case, viewers) cross borders and enter into a “transitional space” to inhabit other selves. 

At the film’s end, we finally hear Omar play his beloved oud. Yet the quality of his performance does not affect how viewers relate to him, for by this point, we empathise with him. We realise that he is human too.

Deborah Shaw is Professor of Film and Screen Studies at the School of Film, Media and Communication at the University of Portsmouth

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