Being True to One's Self: Ben Sharrock Discusses "Limbo"

A conversation with the Scottish director about his a bittersweet comedy about a Syrian asylum-seeker stuck on a remote island.
Hamed Sarrafi

Ben Sharrock's Limbo is exclusively showing on MUBI in the United Kingdom and Ireland starting September 23, 2021 in the series The New Auteurs.

An urgent yet deliberately quirky film, Ben Sharrock’s brilliant Limbo is superficially another fish out of water story. Set in a remote part of Scotland, it resembles the old Ealing Comedies, like Whisky Galore!, but with incredibly dark social realism running through it. The fish is Syrian asylum-seeker Omar (Amir El-Masry, wonderful) who, along with fellow refugees from different countries, has been sent to a place so unwelcoming and bleak—a local place for local people—that desperation quickly sets in. Omar has his trusty instrument, his grandfather’s oud, for company and a determination and outlook that sustains him, but it’s definitely not a rose-tinted story. 

The cherry on the top of this drama is casting Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen) as the woman helping them learn customs and language. There is much to amuse; lots to chew on, in what is possibly one of the finest representations of the deliberately uncomfortable and often hostile refugee experience in the UK and much of the world.

In this wide-ranging interview with Sharrock we find out exactly how and why he makes movies with underdog ‎stories. How having actors as parents, watching Middle Eastern cinema, and studying ‎languages have given him an insider’s and outsider’s perspective, and how he always puts ‎something of himself in each film. We discover why Sharrock chooses not to constantly move the camera, and how—in Hitchcock style—he plans so meticulously that the whole film is edited in his head ‎before he even gets started. In the end, you come to understand the layers in his dramas with their ‎added absurdist undertones by looking at what moves and influences him. As Sharrock ‎says: "I don't think I chose this style of filmmaking. It chose me."‎

NOTEBOOK: In watching your films, it was evident to me that you have a formalistic approach to cinema. Parts of your work remind me of the styles of Aki Kaurismäki, Jacques Tati, and Elia Suleiman. Even in your first film, I noticed an homage to Wes Anderson. It came through in the mise en scène, performances, composition, and humor. Is this style and approach something you’ve always been interested in?

BEN SHARROCK: Yes, I’ve said this before but I don‘t think I chose this style of filmmaking. It chose me. It started when I was getting my undergraduate degree in Arabic and Politics before I even went to film school. I specialized in Middle Eastern Cinema, which was just film theory. It was in that academic setting that I found it so easy to analyze films and I seemed to really understand the language of cinema. I sort of fell in love with Middle Eastern cinema. I was running Middle Eastern film nights at the University. It was at that point that I came across two films that were quite successful, Elia Suleiman’s The Time that Remains and The Band’s Visit.  I was also watching a lot of Iranian films. I was fascinated by the use of metaphors in Iranian cinema. Those films really impacted me and gave me a different perspective on what cinema could be. I decided to go back to school to become a director. I wanted to make my own films. During my time in film school filmmakers like Suleiman, Kaurismäki, Wes Anderson, Yasujirō Ozu, and many others were all sources of inspiration for me. It was an organic process. I didn’t try to make films a certain way. Those films and filmmakers just changed my perspective on filmmaking. I could no longer see films any other way. So yes, that’s where I really started. Making films like that is actually difficult, especially in the UK where social realism is very popular. When I was in film school shooting handheld was very popular. Those films were very different from the type of work I wanted to do so I had to stick to my guns and swim against the current in a way. It wasn’t easy. I remember many times where I thought I can’t make films the way I want to because no one will watch it. I thought no one would fund my films. I believe it was in 2014, I was at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and I was watching all the screenings. I saw a film called Club Sandwich by a Mexican director by the name of Fernando Eimbcke. This was a year before I made Pikadero. Watching that movie made me so excited about making my own films that I couldn’t even focus on the movie. That was a turning point for me. Club Sandwich made me put aside my self-doubt and I told myself I need to make films like this. About a year later, or maybe less, I was making Pikadero.

NOTEBOOK: That’s so interesting because I actually wanted to ask you about The Band’s Visit. In both of your films I could see these characters that are stuck in a location and the comedy and tragedy of it all, which they have in common with The Band’s Visit. We can come back to that. So before going to film school you were studying Arabic and Politics. Where did the interest in film come from?

SHARROCK: Yes, well my parents were both actors and my mom was a drama teacher later on so I was exposed to that as a child. Growing up I actually wanted to be an actor right up until I went to study Arabic and Politics. I was involved in a youth theater and we even went on tour in America at one point. I also made films while I was in school but at that point my main interest was being in front of the camera rather than behind it. I had friends and other people around me who were interested in film though, many of my friends were cinephiles, so it was always a part of my life. I remember growing up we always wanted to watch the latest Disney films or blockbuster films and my parents made us watch The Marx Brothers and other films. I remember watching Rushmore by Wes Anderson and I felt like it was a weird movie for me at that age. My parents tried to educate us on cinema but I think watching Middle Eastern cinema is what eventually changed my perspective on what cinema could be and really got me interested in wanting to make my own films. I was always very interested in different cultures but now I was interested in politics so one of the main areas of studies that I was interested in school was politics, it was modern studies and so it was natural for me to go and do a degree in politics and in Scotland basically you get to do an outside subject in your first year. So, I started with politics, but I wanted to do a language as an outside subject, and initially, I actually wanted to try and do French. Because I studied in school, basically what happened was that the French modules clashed with my politics modules and the only language that was available to me was Arabic and I thought, oh that is actually really interesting. I will try out Arabic then. So, I took on the Arabic modules at the same time I took on the Middle Eastern history, modern Middle Eastern history and I just absolutely fell in love with it. I fell in love with the language, I fell in love with the history, the politics, the culture, everything about it and within a couple of weeks I changed my degree.

NOTEBOOK: What do you think drew you to this formalistic style of cinema such as the works of Elia Suleiman, Ozo, and Tati? What specifically did you see in their work that inspired you in your own filmmaking?

SHARROCK: I think I have an instant connection with the aesthetic—the composition was very satisfying to me. Beyond that, I love the formalism, the way the filmmaker just says this is me and this is how I’m going to make my film. I think it’s also a linguistic thing. It matches well with my background of studying a different language at University. It made sense to me to study the language of film. It made sense to me to sit back and watch every frame critically and think why the filmmaker made that decision about mise en scene, about the production design, about the composition. Why is the camera static here or why is the camera moving? I found that to be really exciting. They use a lot of static shots which for me is always a starting point perhaps because of background in theater. It’s like setting the stage. Some like to add camera movement just to make the shot more dynamic but I feel like if I move the camera there needs to be a reason. Perhaps if you’re making an action film, then making the shot dynamic is a good enough reason but in the types of films I like to make, I need to know why the camera is moving. That’s just how it works in my head. I feel like it if made films any other way, I wouldn’t be true to myself.

NOTEBOOK: Both your films tell stories about marginalized and minority characters—people that are outsiders even in their own communities. Is there something that pulls you to these types of characters and their stories?

SHARROCK: Yes, it’s definitely something that I’m very drawn to. And again, I don’t think it’s something that I consciously choose to do. It’s within me. I’m very inquisitive and curious about people. When I’m sitting on a bus or in a restaurant, I watch the people around me and make up stories in my head about them. I think about what type of people they are, what they like and don’t like. Things like that. I’ve always been drawn to underdog stories. I am not sure where that interest comes from. Perhaps it could be because my dad comes from a working-class background from Liverpool. He would tell me what it was like growing up middle-class in Liverpool. We also visited my dad’s family in Liverpool a lot and their lives were very different from my mom’s family. It’s a lot like Aki Kaurismäki’s film The Match Factory Girl. My grand aunty actually worked in a match factory. I guess that’s part of why I’m drawn to people like that, marginalized people that might be struggling but have an amazing warmth. This is an interesting question because it all came naturally to me but right now, I’m thinking about my future work and it also fits in the same category. 

NOTEBOOK: You’re from Scotland and you studied Arabic in your undergraduate studies. What made you choose Basque in Spain as the setting for your first feature film.

SHARROCK: I’m Scottish but my wife is from Basque. We met in film school in Edinburgh and she was also the producer on Pikadero and Limbo. It happened naturally actually. I actually lived in Basque for a way because of my wife. That region is very industrial and I was there during the economic crisis in Spain so a lot of people around us were impacted by it. The town where we shot Pikadero had 40 factories and about a tenth of them had closed. I wanted to tell the story of how the economic crisis was impacting young people as I was surrounded by it. What I had to figure out was how to say what I wanted to say through the cinematic language. I came across a story about how more young people were living with their parents because they couldn’t move out and live on their own. It was as if they were getting stuck in their childhood. That sparked the idea of young people looking to go to pikaderos with their loved ones because they were all living at home with their parents. It was an incredibly low budget film, we made it with just 25,000 pounds. In film budget terms it's probably “zero budget.” We had access to a lot of these factories and knew people that worked there which is why we were able to make the film in that way. I am really interested in social and political issues and I wanted to blend the reality of it with the surrealistic world.

NOTEBOOK: In Pikadero we see the story of three characters, one that stays in the same place and two of them that travel. It was sad to see the character that was unable to leave due to his economic situation. He grew a mustache and began to fit in like everybody else at the factory. The frame at the end of the film reminds me of René Magritte paintings. Everybody is wearing the same coat. We can identify him but he has become a part of the factory like everybody else. This is In contrast to the character in your previous film where she was able to change her situation through her ambition. She came out of her shell and made her dreams come true. Unfortunately for your new character, that is not the case. This man doesn’t want to move but is forced to due to the political situation and he still ends up on an isolated island and has an identity struggle with his past and future. All your characters have this in common, this battle with self-identity. They are also not that optimistic about their future. Can you tell us more about this kind of character journey and what propelled you to make Limbo?

SHARROCK: It’s interesting to hear you sum up the journeys of the characters from both films and you are right. I think it has something to do with my internal self. While I’m making films about people that are very different from me and have different experiences, there is something of myself and my life experiences in them as well.  This is true of Ane and Gorka in Pikadero as well as Omar in Limbo. When I made Pikadero, I was at a point in my life where I was trying to figure out if I should pursue film or not, whether to follow my dream or not. That’s how I connected with Pikadero. With Limbo, I had lived in Syria for a year during my undergraduate studies. I studied at Damascus University for a year. This was a year before the civil war had started. I also did my dissertation on “Arabian and Muslim representation in American cinema and TV.” When the refugee crisis became prevalent in the western media, I had a different connection to it and I could see how dehumanizing the representation was. I felt like nobody was covering these stories in a way that portrays them as normal people.. It was either demonizing refugees or pitying them. Similar to the way Pikadero came about, I knew I had things to say about the crisis in Syria and I wanted to say that cinematically. That’s where I really started. I had decided to dedicate three or four years of my life to make a film about refugees. I spent some time with an NGO in southern Algeria in a refugee camp focusing on what effect the label of refugee has on self-identity. That’s where the story really developed. I knew that I didn’t want to tell the story from a white person’s perspective or to center a white character in the film. I also knew that I wanted to focus on how the character sees themselves and their identity. I spent some time speaking to people that work at NGOs and also the asylum system in Scotland and through that research, it clicked for me that the focus should be grief for what remains of one’s identity and so that’s what the film became. That was a turning point for me in understanding the character's journey. The thing about Limbo is that it’s really a film that you have to feel. You have to go through those stages of grief and emotions so I put part of myself into it. I wanted people who haven’t been refugees to also be able to feel the character’s journey and see themselves in it. I feel like there is a universality to Omar’s story. Yes, he’s going to a crisis of identity that is directly related to his experiences but other people could go through similar things due to different circumstances in their own lives. I was personally in limbo as well. It took me three to four years to write Limbo after Pikadero and I was struggling with my own identity. Am I a filmmaker? Should I even keep trying to make films? Can I make this film or was that one just a fluke? It was really important to me to be authentic to Omar’s character and story but also be able to relate to my character as a filmmaker.

NOTEBOOK: You have a way of telling stories that are tragic at their core in a humorous way—like the story of two people that can’t find a place to kiss so they end up kissing in a public restroom or the story of teaching dance to refugees who have never had the opportunity to dance. Do you look for these scenarios and behaviors around you?

SHARROCK: I think so. I do have a curiosity about people and their manners.  It’s funny because it goes back to my acting days when I was younger. I used to tell stories or do other people’s mannerisms or accents. I don’t think I am personally a funny person but I really enjoy analyzing people and creating characters, the way they speak, the way they hold themselves, the way they walk. I also put a lot of focus on the dialogue as well as how it all plays out through the camera. Like you said the composition and color and all that. I suppose it all has a humorous undertone which is how I really see my films.  I don’t really see them as comedies. I see them as a drama with this undertone of absurdism, humorous tone, or deadpan humor and finding the balance is a natural part of the process, it starts with the writing and the script itself. I feel like there is so much humor in tragedy. I often find myself as an observer.  I struggle to be in the moment a lot of times which makes me jealous of those who can be in the moment but I also think that’s how the humor seeps in. For example, funerals are tragic events that really impact people but you can find humor in those situations as well. People often laugh at memories that they have from the person who has passed away. I think that’s actually something that drew me to Elia Suleiman’s work. I was studying the history of the conflict between Palestine and Israel in school and I saw how he told those stories but with humor. He portrayed the humanity of the characters but also with humorous undertones. Even back then, that made a lot of sense to me.

NOTEBOOK: In your films, you work with actors from different backgrounds and even languages. Does that present any challenges for you as a director in communicating with your cast? 

SHARROCK: On both projects everybody spoke English which made it easier. My wife Irune also worked closely with me on Pikadero and she spoke the language. On both projects, I also had long rehearsal periods. We rehearsed as much as possible to get everyone used to the style of filmmaking. It can become robotic and rigid in some ways but it also opens up this freedom for the performance. The other thing is that I wanted the actors to be used to having the lens close to their faces. In some instances, the camera was only an inch from the actor’s face. I have also been learning Basque for quite a long time myself. I learned the script for Pikadero in Basque and I could follow the dialogue. This made it easier because I could actually follow the dialogue but Irune was also there in case there were any issues. I think it’s also a musical thing. The dialogue and the performances are so stylistic. I was very particular about the rhythm of the speech and the way of speaking. I knew the words and how they should sound and when it's another language you feel the emotion of the words. I think part of the rehearsal process is building that trust with the actors which makes working with them much easier because we have a mutual understanding what the style and what we are trying to accomplish. 

NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me about your relationship with your cinematographer Nick Cooke? You had mentioned that you work with symmetrical compositions a lot and that it plays a big role in your films. How did you work with your cinematographer to create the look of your film?

SHARROCK: Yeah, Nick came on board with Pikadero pretty early on. Just by looking at his work, I knew I wanted to work with him and he was my first choice cinematographer. We got along really well and even had a lot of the same influences and interests. We both looked up to Roy Andersson and had an appreciation for slow cinema. We had that connection from the beginning. With the first film, I was very clear about my vision and we worked hard to make sure it came across as clearly as possible. I would think things in my head and Nick would just make it much better. He really understands my films and what I’m trying to do not only from a cinematography standpoint but he also understands the impact of that on the performances and the film as a whole.  He really tries to capture the emotional journey of the characters in his cinematography. At times, it feels like having a second director. I would say he also played a big role in the locations of the film as well. I would usually be the first one to find the main locations and I would come up with the establishing shot and wide shot which would be a starting point. When Nick would get involved we would find other locations and work out the rest of the shots together and test to see if the locations worked. Everything was meticulously planned and I had the whole film edited in my head before we even got started. We didn't have storyboards but we had a clear plan for each location. We did a detailed shot list and planned the composition for every shot. We worked together on figuring out every shot and how the production design would go and what would be in each shot. It’s a very close relationship and I think we are lucky that our tastes are aligned. It was also great to have such supportive producers. My wife Irune especially was very supportive all the time. Nick as the cinematographer was also really supportive.

NOTEBOOK: I had read in one of your interviews that the Oud, the musical instrument, in your film, was inspired by Iranian cinema. Can you tell me more about that and your relationship with Iranian cinema as a whole?

SHARROCK: Yeah, I think, the thing about the Oud, it always felt to me like a perfect metaphor, because it is sort of embodies  Omar’s culture and his family in Syria. It’s what he is physically carrying with him so the Oud is his identity and the Oud is out of tune and he can’t play the Oud and he is missing his identity. When Farhad says well it's like you are carrying your soul in a coffin and it  literally is his soul and he is carrying it around in a coffin. So, that was sort of very important to have that kind of metaphorical backdrop of the Oud and I think that's related to a lot of Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and probably the one that stood out to me particularly in terms of Sufi magical realism and also kind of in those terms in inspiring the scene with brother at the end is Majid Majidi and Bahman Ghobadi and I’m trying to think now. I watch so many and I think one of the first major ones was with the Cow by Dariush Mehrjui.

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