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Ben Sharrock And Amir El-Masry Bring A Refugee Story To Life In 'Limbo'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The new movie "Limbo" takes place on a remote island of Scotland where a group of refugees is waiting for asylum. Among them is Omar, who's from Syria. The only thing tying him to where he's from is his oud. That's a Middle Eastern string instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIMBO")

SIDSE BABETT KNUDSEN: (As Helga) Did you used to be a musician, Omar?

VIKASH BHAI: (As Farhad) Omar is famous.

KNUDSEN: (As Helga) Famous?

BHAI: (As Farhad) Like Donny Osmond.

KNUDSEN: (As Helga) Oh.

KENNETH COLLARD: (As Boris) What instrument is that, anyway?

AMIR EL-MASRY: (As Omar) Oud. It's like a guitar.

COLLARD: (As Boris) Ah, and you brought that all the way from Syria?

KNUDSEN: (As Helga) Oh, well, we should organize a concert.

COLLARD: (As Boris) That's a wonderful idea - Syrian music here on the island.

KNUDSEN: (As Helga) And we could have a finger buffet at the interval.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But despite his peers' attempts, Omar struggles to merge his new identity as a refugee with what he left behind. Amir El-Masry plays Omar in the new movie "Limbo." Ben Sharrock wrote and directed it. And they both join me now. Welcome to the program.

BEN SHARROCK: Thank you for having us.

EL-MASRY: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to start with you, Amir. Tell us about Omar. Who is he when we meet him in this story?

EL-MASRY: From the start, we meet someone who's vacant, who's been stripped of his identity. He's a young man who lived quite a colorful, lavish life playing music with his family. And we see him completely numb of that and void of anything that kind of resembles home.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And he's almost dealing with survivor's guilt. I mean, his parents are in Turkey eking out a living. His brother fought in the civil war in Syria.

EL-MASRY: Absolutely. And that guilt he's trying to justify by constantly trying to have, you know, those conversations with his parents about, you know, what it means to be in the U.K. and in Scotland.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ben, tell me about your own journey to this film because you have spent time in refugee camps. You studied Arabic and politics for your undergrad. You spent a year living in Syria. What did you take from those experiences that translated into this film?

SHARROCK: Yes. It does kind of stem back all the way to the point where I was living in Syria, which was just the year before the civil war started. And, you know, I made friends through playing in the rugby team in Damascus or being, you know, involved in theater there and then, you know, carrying some of those relationships forward as well and that kind of realization that I have so much in common with these people, and this kind of label of being a refugee is actually very damaging to their own identity. So I think it's just lots of things along the way that kind of made me see refugees as ordinary people that are caught in very difficult and tragic and unfortunate circumstances.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amir, talk to me about your journey to this film. I mean, you're British Egyptian, and you have noted in the past that sort of Middle Eastern and North African actors often get typecast. This film is obviously not that. What drew you to play this character?

EL-MASRY: I don't have a problem playing anybody that is, you know, Middle Eastern, you know, because that's something I'm proud of.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Who you are (laughter).

EL-MASRY: That's who I am. Exactly. It's a part of my identity - so long as, you know, the character, we understand where he's come from, where he's going, what his wants, needs are and fears. And I certainly found that when I read Ben's script when I first got it. You know, he put Omar into the forefront of the narrative. He gives him agency. And also, we're constantly reminded of how beautiful Syria is and how much he longs to be back home with his family.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIMBO")

EL-MASRY: (As Omar) After spring, the apricots will start to grow in the garden. My mom would use them to make qamardeen. It's like a sweet apricot leather. In Arabic, we have a saying. It's (speaking Arabic). It means tomorrow, there will be apricots. But you use it for something that will never happen. But I never got the saying because we always had apricots.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You spent time with refugees to prepare for this role.

EL-MASRY: Yes. We were very fortunate. We were working with an organization in Scotland that work with a Syrian single men's group. And one of the things I noticed actually from sitting with them was the amount of humor that they used to kind of cover or to talk about their previous kind of hardships. And I actually loved that the film has that balance between humor and tragedy to tell a story like this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, because the film is profoundly funny in parts. And, Ben, the film was shot in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. And the fictional characters give a lot of comedic lift for the film. They're very idiosyncratic. Why did you want to place this story there?

SHARROCK: We actually started looking in Iceland in the Northwest Fjords and then realized that this story could be told much closer to home in Scotland. But then also placing it on the island, it then sort of developed this metaphorical depth where the island is limbo itself. The island is a metaphor for purgatory.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I mean, the refugees aren't welcomed by everyone. And we see very early on that Omar is ridiculed and harassed by a group of young adults. You make the point that refugee men in particular are viewed as a threat.

SHARROCK: Yeah. And that was part of the decision-making to tell this story that was about a group of single male refugees that are sent to this remote Scottish island. And yeah, that's really connected to the idea that in the right-wing media, it's the single male refugee that's seen as the biggest threat and is part of that process of dehumanization and demonizing of refugees.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, this film has been very well-received, particularly, though, in the Middle East, which I thought was really, really interesting. It's had a lot of resonance there.

EL-MASRY: Yes. We were both incredibly passionate about bringing it to the Middle East. What was amazing actually was, when we did screen it, people didn't know - they didn't know that Ben was Scottish. They assumed that...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

EL-MASRY: ...Whoever directed and wrote this must be Middle Eastern...

SHARROCK: Yeah, yeah.

EL-MASRY: ...Must be Arab, must be, you know, at the very least Egyptian. And when we - I FaceTimed Ben on stage, and it was amazing. They gave a standing ovation. And they were just kind of completely lauding - and rightly so, lauding him for his amazing achievement in directing this.

SHARROCK: I mean, for me, this - it was really a very strange but incredible experience of being obviously during the pandemic and not being able to travel to Cairo Film Festival. I was in my wife's parents' kind of farmhouse in the mountains in the Basque Country. And suddenly, I'm - you know, I'm on stage in the Cairo Opera House facing a standing ovation. And it was just amazing to see that response.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, I guess that speaks to something about the kinds of films that people want to see about refugees and other immigrants. I mean, what kinds of stories do you think we're still not seeing?

EL-MASRY: I think it speaks to more than just about the subject matter. It speaks more about identity. You know, it speaks more about representation and how people want to be represented on screen as well. I mean, I think it was less about being someone who was a refugee and more about someone being portrayed in a positive light. I mean, this - Omar is as positive a reflection as they can get, really - a man who is not ashamed of his background and someone who is Muslim but doesn't - we're not kind of using that in any way. It just happens to be part of his identity. We're constantly reminded of things that we can relate to, regardless of your background. And I think that's what people want to see more of. They want to see themselves, like anybody else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Limbo" is the film directed and written by Ben Sharrock. Amir El-Masry plays Omar. Thank you both very much.

EL-MASRY: Thank you very much.

SHARROCK: Thank you so much for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.