Critical acclaim for the refugee film set on Uist

A low-budget film shot in North Uist in 2018 has just opened in the United States to enthusiastic reviews and has been named the New York Times “Critic’s Pick”.

By Brian Wilson
Friday, 14th May 2021, 2:42 pm
The wide open spaces of North Uist provided the perfect cinematic backdrop for the story of a refugee in "Limbo"
The wide open spaces of North Uist provided the perfect cinematic backdrop for the story of a refugee in "Limbo"

Ben Sharrock who directed “Limbo” – the story of four refugees awaiting their fate on a remote island – reacted to the coveted accolade from Glenn Kenny of the New York Times with the tweet: “This feels like a moment”.

“Limbo” was filmed, mainly in North Uist, over five weeks in the winter of 2018.

Local people were involved both as extras and in providing logistical support and there are now hopes that the finished product can be shown on the island. Lochmaddy and Carinish Halls and the old Lochmaddy School were among the locations used.

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With the Uist landscape featured to good advantage, it should also help promote the islands as a source of locations for future film-making.

The plot has particular resonance in light of recent interest in Syrian refugee families in the Western Isles.

Mr Sharrock had spent a year in Damascus prior to the outbreak of civil war and was disturbed by “extreme depictions” of the refugee crisis in the British media.

He wanted the film to repay the welcome and generosity he had experienced in pre-war Damascus by portraying a more positive view of the refugee experience and their potential contribution at a time when there was much negative press in Europe. The film uses gentle comedy to get its messages across.

Financing came from Film4, Screen Scotland and the British Film Institute.

The director said: “Limbo is a Scottish film through and through. It was made by our own talented and diverse group of Scottish industry professionals who were mad enough to come with us and capture this story in some of the remotest but most beautiful parts of our country.”

His first plan was to film in Iceland having read about refugees being sent to remote Scandinavian locations.

Then Mr Sharrock decided to do it nearer home, having learned of refugees being sent to Lewis, though the four featured in the film were in a different situation to refugees already granted leave to remain in the UK.

He said: “I looked at a map and saw Uist and wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before. I felt that I had to go there.

"I stayed in a cottage with a peat fire in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal and no internet.

"I would just look out the window and write every morning and in the afternoon I’d look for locations. I’d say most of it was written in two weeks”.

The film’s central figure is Omar, a promising young musician.

Separated from his Syrian family, he is stuck on the island awaiting the fate of his asylum request.

Amir El-Masry, a rising cinema star who plays Omar, praised Sharrock’s approach in an interview.

“He puts Omar right into the forefront of the narrative," he said. “There isn’t a Western saviour character that shows him a better way of living.

"(The film) reminds the audience that Omar would rather be back home with his family and playing music.”

Kenny, a highly respected film critic and journalist for the New York Times, was also struck by the dramatic landscape and the poignancy of the story.

In his review, he wrote: “They put us out here in the middle of nowhere to try and break us,’ one of Omar’s comrades complains. But there are other factors straining Omar.

"His brother stayed behind in Syria, to fight in its civil war. His parents pull him one way and another in their conversations.

"Omar takes long, aimless walks, carrying the oud he won’t play. The flat green fields and the big open sky frame his figure to make his isolation seem constant.”

The review continued: “If you’ve spent any time in the Scottish isles, you know they’re places where time seems to stand still.

"The setting here constructs a powerful metaphor for the protagonist’s plight. With a pleasing bit of cinematic sleight-of-hand, the movie grows more expansive once Omar determines to expand his horizon.”

In Time magazine, leading critic Stephanie Zacharech, writes: “This is perhaps more than anything a comedy, a picture whose dry wit recalls that of another Scottish filmmaker, Bill Forsyth, who, in the 1980s, gave us wonderfully wry comedies like Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero”.

Although the United States release is the first test of “Limbo” at the box office, it has already been running up some great symbols of recognition.

It had its first outing at the Toronto Film Festival last September, won top awards in Cairo and was named as an Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival but was not screened due to cancellation of the physical event.

“Limbo” garnered four nominations at the 2020 British Independent Film Awards and was recently nominated for two British Academy Film Awards including outstanding British film, although it did not carry off a prize.

It had a virtual UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival in March and is due for release in cinemas around the UK at the end of July by which time, hopefully, conditions closer to normality will have returned and the Screen Machine will be back on Uist roads.

According to the review aggregator web-site, Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 90 per cent based on 100 reviews, mainly in the US - in the website’s measurement “93 fresh and seven rotten”.

But it wasn’t just the critics in the US who were impressed. Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian was another enthusiastic reviewer, praising Limbo's "elegant deadpan style and describing it as ‘a bracingly internationalist and non-parochial piece of work: film-making with a bold view on the world but also as gentle and intimate as a much-loved sitcom..."

It remains to be seen if a good press will turn into box office success.

“Limbo” had this week been seen in more than 200 movie theatres across America but box office receipts were reported at a modest $200,000.

The favourable reviews should, however, do it no harm.

Meanwhile, its progress continues to be watched closely from the Hebrides.

One long-time resident of North Uist, Mustapha Hocine, told the Gazette: “I have not seen the whole film but from the clips and in interviews given by the director and the main actor, they seem to present a very positive view of the island and take a different approach from usual to the refugee experience”.