A different narrative: how British film 'Limbo' tells a refugee story with humour

‘Limbo’ stars British-Egyptian actor Amir El Masry who plays an asylum seeker stuck on a Scottish island

Amir El-Masry and Vikash Bhai in Limbo (2020) IMDb
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British actor Amir El Masry, 30, is sitting across from me in a cafe in San Sebastian in Spain. The Cairo-born star is in an ecstatic mood. The night before, he was at a cinema watching his own film, Limbo, with an audience, for the first time, as part of the San Sebastian International Film Festival in the beautiful Basque city by the sea. "It was just incredible," he says. "I couldn't have asked for a better reception. It's just something else when you watch it with an audience."

That first viewing with the public should have been at the Cannes Film Festival, but then the coronavirus intervened, leading to the event being cancelled. The film's team also missed the Toronto festival last month. But the wait to see the movie has been worth it.

Limbo is one of the buzz films of the year, and that is all the more surprising given it is a deadpan comedy about refugees waiting on a Scottish island for the results of their asylum claims. The film's director Ben Sharrock shot it on the Uist islands in the Outer Hebrides, and his work has been compared to that of award-winning directors Aki Kaurismaki and Elia Suleiman.

Limbo has received rave reviews. The Guardian gave it five stars and showered praise on El Masry.

The star had studied criminology and sociology at Royal Holloway, University of London, before making the switch to acting in 2008 after the renowned Omar Sharif advised him to start his career in Egypt.

It was sound advice. Soon after, El Masry won the Best Young Actor award at the Egyptian Oscars in 2009 for his role as Ramzy, a spoilt politician's son, in Ramadan Mabrouk Abu El Alamein Hamouda. He later studied drama at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 2013, and went on to act in Rosewater, a 2014 US political drama written and directed by Jon Stewart. El Masry got his breakthrough in 2016, playing a chef in the BBC mini-series The Night Manager alongside Tom Hiddleston.

El Masry admits that he initially approached Sharrock’s script with scepticism. “My agent sent me a little blurb of the film saying it tackles the refugee crisis. I thought, here we go again, it’s probably going to have a white saviour character, and the focus won’t be on the individuals.”

The script was so humane ... the central focus was on this asylum seeker with a rich cultural background that reminds us that they would rather be at home in their country

As he turned the pages, though, the actor was pleasantly surprised to learn that wasn't the case. "The script was so humane, and the central focus was on this asylum seeker, this person, with a rich cultural background that reminds us that they would rather be at home in their country. That tied in with the amount of humour in the film. Honestly, I've never laughed and cried so much reading a script."

El Masry sent in a self-tape and auditioned for the casting director a couple of times before meeting the director, who then offered him the lead role. It was a dream come true for an actor who felt his career was hindered by a lack of roles in English-language films for those of Arab and North African descent.

“I was frustrated for a long time in England,” he says. “A lot of the parts I didn’t get were based on how I looked. It was always: ‘Oh, we decided to go with someone white or something else with this.’ They couldn’t imagine that someone who looked like me could be bankable, or commercial and carry a film.”

He would go into castings and have people ask after he recited lines with his West London accent if he could use his “real voice”.

There was an expectation that being an Arab, he would gesticulate a lot. And he says the roles he was auditioning for were for Arab terrorists or reeked of Islamophobia.

It makes the praise that El Masry is receiving for Limbo all the more satisfying. His character, Omar, is a musician who can't play the oud that he always seems to be carrying around because of a broken hand. He is a quiet, sensitive character, who frequently calls his parents and wonders if he should have stayed to fight in Syria alongside his brother.

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 01:  Director Ben Sharrock  attends the "Limbo" photocall during the 16th Zurich Film Festival at Kino Corso on October 01, 2020 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for ZFF)
Director Ben Sharrock at 16th Zurich Film Festival in Switzerland where 'Limbo' screened. Getty

"To embody what it was like to go through that journey was essential," El Masry says. He learnt to play the oud, even though his hand is in a plaster cast for most of the movie.

“I took five lessons a week with a professional oud player, initially Khyam Allami, who composed the song in the film, and then Attab Haddad, who helped me on set.” In a typical dose of self-deprecating humour, he quips: “I’m sure they cried hearing me play.”

During the two weeks of rehearsals for the film, he also met asylum seekers who went through a government resettlement programme with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and were part of a single men's group charity in Glasgow.

"They were hilarious and so open about their feelings and fears going through the process, and what it felt like to be away from their families.

"That's the point we need to remind people – that they're just like everybody else. They've just happened to have had a rough time."

El Masry feels the humour in Limbo reflects the mental state of asylum seekers well. "They mask what's happening to them with humour, and that for me is immensely relatable. People who tend to suffer or go through turmoil tend to use humour as a mechanism to deal with tough situations, especially people from an Arab background."

What makes Limbo so special is that within the humour there is a political edge. The asylum seekers go to cultural assimilation classes that teach them how to apply for a job and go on dates. It's well-meaning on the surface, but is more an indictment of how backwards some Europeans consider the refugees to be.

In these classes with Omar are Afghan Freddy Mercury super-fan Farhad (Vikash Bhai), as well as Nigerians Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), who quarrel about football and the intricacies of US sitcom Friends.

"I was so lucky to be able to work with such rounded individuals who knew the weight of the story," says El Masry. "Vikash and I had worked on [British TV crime series] McMafia. We didn't have any scenes together, but we spent so much time together. He brings so much heart into Farhad. And Ola and Kwabena as well."

Being on the Uist islands added to the bond between the actors. "It did feel like we only had each other because it's so vast, and it takes 45 minutes to get anywhere. So, when you do meet, it feels like a connection you want to hold on to."

With his coming roles as a banker in HBO series Industry and in Netflix's futuristic dating drama The One, El Masry is a star we're going to love welcoming into our homes.

Limbo is playing at the London Film Festival, which is on until Sunday, October 18 and will be screened at the Cairo International Film Festival in December