Interview: My Brother the Devil, dir. Sally El Hosaini
Nominated in the First Feature Competition at the 56th BFI London Film Festival, Sally El Hosaini’s debut feature tells the story of two brothers living with their parents in Hackney. Teenager Mo (Fady Elsayed) initially idolises older brother Rashid (James Floyd), whose tight group of friends assist him in selling drugs in the local area. However, after witnessing the effects of gang crime first hand, Rashid soon develops a disdain for his lifestyle and seeks the tranquillity of another way of life. Meanwhile, Mo is eager to emulate his brother and develops relationships with those who were once close to him. As Mo’s desires clash with those of Rashid, the situation for both brothers becomes increasingly dangerous.
BEVer Sonia Zadurian spent some time with Sally, who was awarded Best British Newcomer at the BFI London Film Festival, discussing young star Fady Elsayed, Sally’s route into the film industry and the importance of Birds Eye View.
Where did the initial idea for the film come from?
Everybody says how difficult it is when you work on your first feature, so I thought, ‘well, if you only had one film to make, what would it be?’ I knew it was going to be a long haul so it had better be something I was really passionate about. The precise story developed over the research period. I knew I wanted to explore a sibling relationship, but I didn’t really know where it was going to take me. When I started to write the first draft I had to stop because I felt like a fraud, so I spent a couple of years doing my research and getting to know boys who were involved in gangs in Hackney, Highbury and Brixton. I was making a few key contacts, learning the language and understanding their lives. It was through that research that I saw how much pressure they were putting on themselves to be men. That’s how I ended up devising the story as it is now.
How did you come across young actor Fady Elsayed?
I had met Fady Elsayed at Arsenal football stadium three years before, but he was tiny so I dismissed him. When we were looking for Mo, we actually went right to the wire. We couldn’t find the right Mo. We had paid casting scouts to go out to all the shopping centres around London, looking for boys of a certain age. Fady ended up being cast two days before we started filming, because somebody said ‘do you remember that boy?’ and I said ‘yeah I met him but he’s way too young’ and they said ‘well have you seen him lately?’ I hadn’t seen him for a few years and he’d grown up. He auditioned and got along really well with James.
How did you come into film?
I realised that I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was studying Arabic and Middle East politics at University. I thought I’d messed up my life because I hadn’t studied film. My university didn’t have a course to change to, so I couldn’t transfer to it. When I left university I worked for Amnesty International for a year, trying to find a way to get into film but finding it very difficult because I had no contacts and didn’t know anybody in that world. Then I found this place called Arts International that had a theatre director who took me on as an apprentice with a small group of other people. He said that for a year he would teach us how to be employable. We worked like a little mini company, so I was a trainee director and did some theatre and various things. Then I moved to London and my first job was speaking Arabic in documentaries. Having a language helped me get my foot in the door. I was working for a few years on Middle East documentaries for the main broadcast channels. I really wanted to get into fiction and was quite disillusioned with the way the documentaries were being made. Then I managed to get a job as a production coordinator in a production office and did that for a few years. It was quite frustrating to be around all the creative jobs, but not be able to do them. Then I got a job in BBC Drama, where I was a researcher and then became a script editor. After being there for a few years, I reached the point where I’d learnt enough in the industry. So I left and just started making my own films. That was about five or six years ago, when I started My Brother the Devil.
You’ve previously been involved in Birds Eye View’s International Women’s Day gala. How important do you think it is that an organisation like BEV exists to celebrate and support female filmmakers?
I think it’s vitally important to have an organisation like Birds Eye View. Everybody knows the statistics and how few women there are. A lot of people have asked me or have commented on ‘it’s such a boyish movie and you’re a woman’ which I’ve always found a little bit shocking, because I’m sure that male filmmakers aren’t asked why they’re a man making women’s films, or why they’re attracted to certain subjects. There also need to be more women. Considering that equal numbers of females and males graduate from film schools every year, I think the statistics are that it’s about 50/50 that graduate from film schools and film education, but then you look at the statistics. Where do all those women go? Why don’t they end up in the industry?
What advice would you give to women just starting out in film? In front of, or behind the camera?
Make the films that you most want to make. There isn’t a type of film that a woman should make because she’s a woman. It doesn’t mean you have to do a film about women if you’re a woman. Be true to yourself and tell the stories that inspire or excite you. Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward. I think one of the differences psychologically between men and women in the workplace; men are much quicker at taking credit for what they’ve done for themselves and if complimented, they’ll say thank you. Whereas women will often credit the people who brought them to that point and say ‘oh thank you, but it was really X, Y, Z who taught/helped me’. I think women need to be more proud of their achievements and more forthright and go for it.
My Brother the Devil arrives in UK cinemas today, 9 November. Sneak a peek at the trailer here.