- Emma Simmonds
- 3 March 2021
GFF 2021: Ben Sharrock's superb second film follows a Syrian man on a remote Scottish island
Bringing poignancy and impeccably staged absurdity to the fish-out-of-water film, Ben Sharrock's comedy drama beautifully conveys the trauma of displacement and the coldheartedness of the asylum process. The Scottish director's second feature, following 2015's Pikadero, finds a young Syrian man separated from his family, stripped of his cultural and professional identity and forging fleeting connections as he's held in the titular limbo.
Egypt-born, London-raised actor Amir El-Masry brings ample pathos to the central character of Omar, who has been placed on a remote Scottish island, pending the result of his asylum application, along with several other single men in the same situation. They are not allowed to work, instead are required to undergo cultural awareness classes, run by the well-meaning but inept Helga and Boris (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard, quite the double-act). One such class opens the film in jovial style – a dance-themed take on the subject 'Sex: Is a smile an invitation?'
A successful musician in his home country, Omar carries his oud with him permanently, though cannot bring himself to play it. He befriends his Freddie Mercury-mad housemate Farhad (lovely work from Vikash Bhai), whose donation centre finds (including Friends DVDs, a panda hat and a bike) make for a nice running gag. Omar's calls to his mother, currently residing in Istanbul, bring news of his brother who stayed in Syria to fight and unleash Omar's guilt and homesickness.
With Omar adrift in a sea of Scottishness, the film emphasises its protagonist's alienation by frequently picturing him against vast swathes of barren landscape, while the muted palette conveys both the chill of the climate and the less than warm welcome he has received – responses range from wary to vaguely hostile, though there are endearing exceptions. Rather like the films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (the director of The Other Side of Hope and Le Havre, who is also interested in the subject of asylum), it features inspired comic touches. When discussing the island's mobile reception, it's observed that: 'There was a better signal in the middle of the Mediterranean.' While Boris recalls that a local man once won a goat for his talent show rendition of 'All the Single Ladies'.
Following the similarly themed but horror-infused His House, from another British director, Remi Weekes, it's fascinating to see the asylum process approached so differently, albeit equally critically. If things can feel desperately bleak, there's hope in the humour, in the small acts of kindness and in an explosion of colour in the sky. But ultimately this impeccably judged film wins you over with the sheer strength of its humanity, as it encourages us to see people for all that they were and still can be.
Available to watch via Glasgow Film At Home for 72 hours from 8:30pm on Wed 3 Mar, as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2021. In cinemas from Fri 30 Jul.