"I wanted to tell a story where becoming a refugee wasn’t a conscious choice... it was only one facet of that person’s life."
Scottish filmmaker Ben Sharrock, a Screen Academy Scotland graduate and EIFF Talent Lab alumni, made waves with his debut feature film Pikadero (2015). Following its debut at the San Sebastian Film Festival, it was awarded the coveted Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature in 2016 following its UK premiere at EIFF. The film has since screened at over 40 international film festivals, with Sharrock’s visually striking and intelligent Basque-language story widely lauded and enjoyed by audiences worldwide.
Sharrock’s sophomore feature, and latest project, brings us somewhat closer to home. Limbo tackles the refugee crisis, following young musician Omar and his fellow Syrian asylum seekers as they await news of their asylum status on a remote, weather-hardened (fictional) Scottish island. Combining absurdist humour with genuine sincerity, this melancholic comedy depicts the feared and frustrating ‘limbo’ state that many refugees face with a necessary warmth and humanity that speaks to shared experiences.
Named part of the Cannes 2020 Official Selection earlier this year and with the UK and Irish rights acquired by MUBI, Limbo is now gearing up for its UK premiere next week at BFI’s London Film Festival. We spoke to Ben about his memories of winning the Michael Powell Award, the timely and engaging inspirations behind his new film and his own tips for staying creative whilst living in a state of limbo ourselves…
It’s been four years since Pikadero screened at EIFF, taking home the top accolade! What were the highlights of your EIFF experience, particularly as a Scottish filmmaker?
I grew up with EIFF. It was the first film festival I ever went to as a kid and I always had an awareness of its prestige and the impact it has on the city growing up. I was also lucky enough to be part of the EIFF Talent Lab programme some years previous to Pikadero, so I’ve always felt a real bond with the festival from that as well. My number one highlight of course has to be when Mark Adams pulled me to one side during an event and whispered in my ear that I’d won the Michael Powell Award. I was completely speechless and my legs turned to jelly. I had to quietly continue participating in the event as if nothing had happened!
It is such a special festival because, much like Edinburgh itself, it is just the right size. You quickly get a real sense of the festival, the buzz of the festival hub and the coming together of the international film community in a relaxed environment, which is essential for filmmakers. I have been to many film festivals all over the world, big and small, and I have to say, even though I am from Edinburgh and used to bagpipes and kilts, there is something unbeatable about the pipe band performance at Edinburgh Castle that’s put on as part of EIFF. I feel very proud of my hometown when I look around at all the international guests gathered above the city at Edinburgh Castle as the sun sets, utterly enchanted by Edinburgh and EIFF.
Tell us about the inspiration for and processes behind making Limbo, especially given its timely themes.
I studied Arabic and Politics at Edinburgh University as an undergrad and spent a year living in Syria - this was 2009, just before the civil war started. After that, during film school in 2013, I was developing a short film set in a refugee camp in southern Algeria. Irune Gurtubai (the producer) and I spent time living with a family in the camps and working with an NGO. I became fascinated with the impact that being a refugee has on one’s own identity. We would go into the camp schools and ask the displaced children to draw how they saw themselves - what they came up with was nothing to do with the fact that they were refugees.
I wanted to tell a story that has the landscape of the refugee as a subject matter, but with my style of filmmaking. So there are absurdist elements, which rally against the representation of refugees in mainstream media, or representations that focus on the purely sensationalist aspects of that subject matter. I was thinking about the friends that I have in Syria, about how much I have in common with them. When I lived there, I ended up playing in the Damascus rugby team. We toured to Lebanon and after matches we’d go out for a drink and chat. But here, we often have the left- wing media pushing us towards pitying refugees and the right-wing media scaremongering and demonising refugees. I wanted to tell a story where becoming a refugee wasn’t a conscious choice that a person has made - that it was only one facet of that person’s life. Yet at the same time, show how the label of “refugee” can be deeply destructive to one’s sense of identity. In the end, it’s really putting something out into the world that humanises the refugee experience in a way that can grab people’s attention.
Essentially, the subject attached itself to me. I knew I had to make something about this but I didn’t know how, so the journey with Limbo started out with a long list of things that I wanted to avoid when dealing with this subject matter. Top of the list was to avoid sensationalising the ‘refugee crisis’ and using a western character as a vehicle to explore this topic. What followed was a lot of research, talking to people who had been through the asylum system in Scotland and speaking to organisations who work with refugees on a day to day basis to test my ideas and thoughts in how to approach this subject with humour and absurdism.
How do you feel that audience reactions to Limbo will be affected by the globalised events of the last few months? Suddenly we’re all living in limbo!
Yes! I think so far global audiences have perhaps found it easier to connect with some of the themes in the film, at least in terms of feeling trapped by a prevailing sense of uncertainty. There is also, coincidently, a moment in the film about reading one’s feelings just through the eyes, which is now totally relevant with the use of masks! Hopefully what audiences will come away with is at least a sense of hope that the limbo we are experiencing right now will eventually pass.
With your debut Pikadero set in the Basque Country in Spain, was it a natural decision to bring your storytelling back home to Scotland for Limbo?
Absolutely. I really wanted to make a film in Scotland and it felt like the right move. Creatively, I am drawn to positioning myself as an outsider and in general I have a very international outlook, but I felt I like I wanted to bring these sensibilities to a Scottish canvas and as such, we ended up with Limbo. Even though the film is set in Scotland, it is very much an international story. The island is fictional and in part a metaphor for purgatory itself. The protagonist of the film is Syrian and even the islanders are a mix of nationalities. This is to present the attitude towards refugees as something pan-European, rather than it being specifically about Scotland.
The post-production on Limbo finished a week before lockdown started – that’s pretty perfect timing! Have you managed to start work on any new projects over the last few months?
I am slowly but surely finding my feet, but I was pretty exhausted following Limbo and in need of a holiday. I write all the time just to keep flexing those muscles and I have spent much of the lockdown trying out new ideas. However, I am generally quite cautious when deciding what to do next. It is such a commitment and I think you can only do something exceptional if you find something that you know you can commit your energy and passion towards for years to come.
Lockdown has proven to be a difficult time creatively for many. Do you have tips for any budding filmmakers who might find themselves creatively stumped at the moment?
There are so many things that feed into the creative process and I think it’s really useful to allow yourself small successes like watching that film you’ve been meaning to watch for ages or trying to sum up an idea you have into a couple of sentences. Even if the day is over and you’ve only written 4 words, in the long run it is still probably a day well spent. Try and look at the positives and don’t be too hard on yourself.
Aside from that, I think the most important thing is to try and give yourself purpose. Don’t wait for someone else to give you purpose. I wish I could follow some of this advice as well haha!
With Limbo screening online at BFI’s London Film Festival this month on BFI Player, what messages – if any - do you hope audiences will take away from the feature?
The most important thing for me is for people to spend an hour and half with these characters and to feel close to them by the end. To feel like you know them and to maybe feel like you can find parts of yourself in them no matter what your background.
Limbo screens at the BFI's London Film Festival on Friday 16th October from 18:30 - 19:00pm (BST). You can watch from anywhere in the UK - book your ticket to watch online here. Pikadero is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.