“Bet you never thought you’d end up here pal, eh?” says a Scottish islander to Syrian refugee Omar in the new movie Limbo. The place looks idyllic, but if you’re an asylum seeker waiting for your application to be processed like Omar, there’s little to do there except wait. Despite Omar’s plight, and actor Amir El-Masry’s deadpan expression, Limbo is actually a dry comedy that makes us feel immensely for its subjects without patronising, caricaturing or belittling their plight (its Scottish writer-director, Ben Sharrock, previously worked in Syrian refugee camps). It’s a rare film indeed. And it’s worth asking why.
Our national political discourse has been obsessed with immigration and refugees for much of the past decade, with consequences that barely need explaining, yet the issue has been largely absent from screens. Faced with a determinedly xenophobic government and sections of the media that dehumanise, cinema could be doing much to create understanding.
Documentaries aside, the last time British cinema successfully turned its gaze on migrants and refugees was a good two decades ago now: the early 2000s, when we had films such as Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (following Afghan refugees from a camp in Pakistan to London), or Last Resort (on a Russian asylum seeker in Kent), or Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (on the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster). Even Ken Loach, our social realist laureate, has rarely dealt with the issue.
Mainland Europe seems to have been doing a better job. Stylistically, Limbo is clearly indebted to Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki, whose last two features, The Other Side of Hope and Le Havre, told of immigrants being embraced by sympathetic Europeans. Jacques Audiard’s Cannes-winning Dheepan (on a Sri Lankan refugee in Paris) is the tip of an iceberg of French movies, and Germany had hit refugee comedy Welcome to Germany or, more recently, Sebastian “Victoria” Schipper’s Roads, a buddy comedy with a British teen and a Congolese migrant.
Apart from Limbo, the only recent British entries that spring to mind are the Paddington movies (as a cuddly, broadbrush lesson in tolerance), and last year’s excellent horror His House, which confined a freshly arrived South Sudanese couple to a terrifyingly spooky home. The trauma of getting to then finding your place in the UK lent itself to the horror genre too easily.
Could it be that, in this country especially, there’s a hostile environment towards making these kinds of films? That people go to the cinema to escape what’s happening in the real world? If so, films such as Limbo and His House point to the way forward – sweetening the issues with a genre coating without dumbing them down. We’d all be better off with more like them.