Way out of Limbo

in 42nd Cairo International Film Festival

by Elena Rubashevska

Each time a festival ends, one can feel somewhat depressed and empty upon coming back home. But not so with the 42nd edition of the Cairo International Film Festival. Of course, it’s impossible not to miss the warmth of the Egyptian weather and people, and it feels weird to sleep enough and not be hurrying to yet another party… But there is something more important: the festival leaves an aftertaste of deep contentment, as my personal cinematic choice №1, Limbo (2020) by Ben Sharrock, was awarded by both FIPRESCI and main juries as the Best Film of the International Competition.


The official motivation of the FIPRESCI prize states the following: “Our prize in the name of the prominent Egyptian film critic Samir Farid is awarded to a film that manages to delicately highlight the ever-present hardships of people fleeing from war and conflicts. With a finely tuned and strict use of cinematography, sound design, and detailed framing, the film speaks to a global audience and portrays refugees as individuals in their own right”.

Limbo is a neat, laconic, minimalistic, witty, and poetical story about lonely refugee Omar, lost in the midst of the dull Scottish landscapes awaiting the fate of his asylum request. With its enveloping sound design and precise mise-en-scene, this movie is as funny and poignant as life itself. It does not only lament the hardships of the Arab migrants or mock the western world’s inability to handle the crisis. It speaks directly to every human who has experienced sadness and was at a loss, to every person who has been lonely and had no strength to move forward, to everybody who has been estranged in one way or another.

I was never a fan of movies that depict reality as it is. When I go to the cinema, I do it because I want to see the world through someone else’s eyes, from someone else’s perspective. And Ben Sharrock as a director provides us with that: he masterfully creates his unique world with its bizarre and peculiar conventions, which, being very un-realistic, at the end makes Limbo‘s world more real than reality itself.

Limbo never blames anyone; it does not portray the world with the use of black and white colors: the fates of its characters are woven with greyish nuances of sullen routines and everyday life, which is rarely as dramatic as it is shown in Hollywood stories. It cautiously avoids banalities of ‘classic narratives’ – and because of that, this film stands out among the countless (at first glance) much more emotional stories about migrants.

And when it comes to emotions, Amir El-Masry, a British actor with Egyptian origins, becomes one of the most powerful tools in the director’s arsenal. His deliberate underacting goes naturally hand in hand with the surrounding setting of a nothing-ever-happens-here Scottish island, which becomes a personal limbo for every character of the story. With his eloquent modesty and ever-present restraint, El-Masry creates more than just one character in a particular movie; he presents the image of every immigrant with his inner pain, еxhausting doubts, and never-ending struggle for a better future. Making efforts to fit in the foreign society, El-Masry’s character Omar keeps trying to process his past life, which now only exists as his family members’ voices in the receiver of the old-fashioned phone.

To shake viewers, it is not necessary to show blood and cruelty on the screen. And in Limbo, subtle and ironic humor, being juxtaposed with the silent refugee’s death, provokes a shocking impression and puts us in a state of ultimate grief about every forlorn human in the world. It doesn’t matter anymore if the migrant comes from Syria or Afghanistan: there, on the distant Limbo island, covered in snow and forgotten, could be any one of us.

But no matter how hard life may be, Ben Sharrock shows us the way out of limbo. With the first sound coming out from Omar’s oud, we immediately know that there is hope – and not for Omar only, but humanity.

Elena Rubashevska
Edited by Robert Horton