My Brother the Devil: The five-year struggle to write and direct a Sundance-winning debut

All film is in some way political—whether you like it or not. It’s good to be conscious of that as a filmmaker. When I first started writing the script for My Brother the Devil, it was just after the 7/7 tube bombings in London. The way British Arabs—and British Arab youth in particular—were being portrayed in the media as some kind of terror threat bothered me. It didn’t represent the boys I saw around me every day, so I decided to make a film that revealed their lives honestly, and conveyed their real struggles. I’ve always been interested in people on the margins of society: outsiders and outcasts. I’m also drawn to intimate studies of character, so I wanted to make complex heroes out of people that don’t already have that kind of iconic representation in cinema.

Sally El Hosaini, director of My Brother the Devil

My Brother the Devil shows you life through the eyes of two brothers, Rashid and Mo, brought up in a traditional Egyptian home in Hackney—one of London’s most ethnically mixed and historically volatile neighbourhoods. Envisioning a better life for his little brother, Rashid attempts to leave “road life” (gang life) behind while Mo decides he wants in. On a collision course of conflicting desires, each of them is forced to face up to himself and confront the brother he thought he knew. Ultimately, they learn that hate is easy, and that love and understanding take courage.

I’ve lived in Hackney for over 10 years. In fact, the entire film was shot 10 minutes from my house. I would see teenage boys hanging around my neighbourhood and they fascinated me, especially the boys of Arab origin who had a cultural upbringing to which I could relate. I’m half Egyptian. At first I was interested in the gang as a surrogate family. However, whilst researching and spending time with these boys, the less interesting or important the trappings of their world became. Instead, I found myself drawn to their personal stories. I wanted to make a film that didn’t reduce these kids to stereotypical “hoodies,” but showed them as intelligent, thinking, feeling, three-dimensional people. We are so used to seeing these youths portrayed as bulletproof, but I wanted to expose their vulnerabilities—vulnerabilities that I witnessed in the real boys who inspired the film.

From the very start I knew that I wanted the film to be about brothers. As a middle child, my experiences of being both a little and big sister informed me greatly. Also, I didn’t want Mo and Rashid to be symbols for bigger concepts, as is so often the case with Arab characters. I was aware that they are, at root, just London boys. They actually have an ambivalent relationship to Arab/Islamic culture that’s both familiar and alien to them. Their concerns are the universal concerns of all teenagers. They want to look good, make some money to buy the latest gear, and have sex. Yes, they struggle to survive the gangs, drugs and violence, but they have other needs, desires, and dreams. While writing the screenplay I had an image of a piece of DNA in my head. Each brother was a strand of the helix and their lives twisted and spiralled around each other: on separate paths, but forever connected. This was the genesis of Mo and Rashid’s relationship, which is the spine and heart of the story. That image was very important in terms of how the plot unfolds and how I structured the dual protagonist story.

My-Brother-The-Devil

My background in documentaries definitely influenced my approach in terms of how I researched and wrote the script. My quest for authenticity led me to spending many years getting to know boys involved in gangs, learning the language and embedding myself in the world. Aymen Hamdouchi, who acted as Repo in the film, was my script consultant, helping me really learn the slang. Only when I felt I knew this world intimately could I accurately depict it. There was even a glossary of urban slang that accompanied the script. The film took five years to make, and as the years went by, I found myself updating the slang as certain words would fall in and out of usage. The devil is in the details.

It was during my research that I experienced the alpha-male culture of a gang first hand. These boys would rather be seen on the streets with a group of boys than a group of girls. In this world a guy can’t compliment another guy without adding “no homo” to the end of the sentence. (For example, “I like your shoes, no homo.”) I saw that the macho expectations they had of themselves was often a source of great personal pressure. I began to wonder what it would be like for somebody to explore their sexuality within this overtly male, doubly homophobic world. There’s the implicit homophobia within the Islamic Egyptian family, but even more dangerous was the homophobia I found on the streets amongst their peer group, reinforced by urban, hip-hop culture.

Most films set on council estates (government subsidised housing, or “projects”) portray them as grey and depressing. I didn’t want to do that. I live on a council estate, and it’s not like that at all. I wanted the film to show how these boys saw their own world. It’s their home, and to them it’s beautiful. I wanted to position the audience on the the inside looking out. This is why I developed a very subjective shooting style that stayed close to the brothers. Shortly before filming began, I was on a bus, and there was a teenage boy sitting in front of me who had really bad skin. I remember thinking, that’s what this movie needs: I want to be close enough to the characters that you see their bad skin. I wanted to see their sweat, their acne, the texture of their flesh. The decision to shoot in 2.35 not only turned a mundane world into an adventure, it forced us into a lot of close-ups. This also served the intimate and often claustrophobic way that I wanted to tell the story.

My cinematographer, David Raedeker, and I created four shooting rules which helped us define our aesthetic. The first rule was that the visuals should be experience-driven. We asked ourselves how this scene would be experienced by Mo or Rashid, and we wanted to use their five senses to access the emotion of the scene and then translate that visually. The second rule was maintaining a 1.5 POV, with Mo’s POV being the 1 and Rashid’s being the .5—so that the film would be mostly from Mo’s POV, but not entirely. Rule three was no master shots; we wanted to always maintain a subjective style. Rule four was simplicity, because often the simplest shot is the most effective.

As somebody of mixed heritage, I know how it feels to have opposing identities and to live in two worlds that aren’t always in harmony. My Brother the Devil is the story of what happens to brothers when these worlds collide, forcing them to make painful choices. Like the brothers in my film, I know what it’s like to have different, contradictory selves. My own narrative has influenced both my choice of story and characters. I want to try to capture the complexity of people, and the intricacies of life on film. With My Brother the Devil, I tried to address difficult questions about identity. There are no easy answers, but by exploring the questions, I hope that viewers will be provoked to look inwards and explore their own prejudices and thought processes.

Photo of Sally El Hosaini courtesy of the Guardian

 

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