Director Salley El Hosaini at the premiere of My Brother the Devil. Photo by Calvin Knight.
We want to offer our congratulations to Sally El Hosaini and the entire team behind My Brother the Devil for winning the Europa Cinemas Label for Best European Film in the Panorama Section of the 2012 Berlin Film Festival. This seems a fitting occasion to revisit this enlightening profile of El Hosaini — full of insights into her creative process and the socio-cultural realities that inspired the project — published here on the eve of My Brother the Devil‘s debut at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
“Writing and directing are all about listening and watching,” says writer/director Sally El Hosaini, who brings her debut feature film, My Brother the Devil, to the Festival’s World Dramatic Competition section this year. The film traces the tumultuous relationship between two Arab brothers, 14-year-old Mo (Fady Elsayed) and his older brother, Rashid (James Floyd), as they try to get by in a rough London neighborhood rife with gangs, drugs, violence, hatred, and poverty.
El Hosaini was born in Wales, grew up in Egypt, and studied politics and Middle Eastern Studies at Durham University. As she was developing her project, she spent a lot of time meeting with young men similar to her characters. “I was interested not only in why they ended up in gangs, but wanted to uncover their hopes, fears, dreams, and desires,” El Hosaini recalls. “I witnessed their attempts to achieve happiness and their struggles to gain employment. Becoming personally involved in their lives made me more passionate to tell their stories and represent them in an honest, three dimensional way.”
El Hosaini poured that research into her script, which took her five years to complete. “It was good that I took that long to develop the project,” she says. “I was able to really hone the script, to find what the heart of the story was. That time also allowed me to uncover deeper layers to the story. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion – you keep discovering more.”
The film was inspired in part by El Hosaini’s personal experience. “I’ve been living in Hackney for 10 years. Being half Welsh and half Egyptian also gave me a certain understanding and empathy for the multicultural kids living in my neighborhood,” she says.
Following the 7/7 subway bombings in London in 2005, El Hosaini was dismayed by the media’s portrayal of Muslim youth. “I felt that Arab and Muslim kids were being stereotyped and treated unfairly,” she says. “I wanted to make a film that was true to the real British Arab experience. The two brothers in my film may be of Arab origin, but they are first and foremost British boys. They have an ambivalent relationship to Arab culture that’s both familiar and alien to them. Their concerns are the universal concerns of most teenagers.”
The production’s lengthy timeline also allowed El Hosaini to carefully develop the film’s precise visual style, one very much attentive to framing, axis lines, depth of field, and a delicate palette of pale greens, blues, and grays.
“I spent a lot of time with the cinematographer, David Raedeker, and the production designer Stéphane Collonge,” El Hosaini says, explaining that the trio drafted a set of rules to help drive the cinematography. “Firstly, everything had to be experience-driven. Secondly, we decided not to depend on any master shots. We approached scenes from how the brothers were experiencing the moment. This led to a subjective style. But, at the end of the day, you have to throw away the rules. When you’re there on set, with the actors, you have to be open to the moment, to have the freedom to look around, see what’s there, and respond to it.” She adds, “I always knew that the real story I was trying to tell was an internal, psychological, and emotional story. A story like that is all about the subtext.”
El Hosaini’s project was supported through the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program’s Screenwriters Lab and Directors Lab, which she attended in 2009. “I didn’t go to a conventional film school so the Labs were my opportunity to share, analyze, and discuss the project with experienced filmmakers and advisors in a caring and collaborative environment,” she says. “It was like summer camp for film lovers; it was a special and wonderful experience.”