Sally El Hosaini’s powerful and compelling debut feature film My Brother the Devil tells the story of two brothers coming to terms with their identity as their paths collide amidst a violent world of drugs and gang culture.
The film tackles taboos of masculinity, identity and desire within street culture that have rarely been seen on screen before. Using mainly non-actors and shot entirely on the streets of London’s Hackney, it creates a vivid picture of young people growing up on the streets and the pressures that surround them. Hosaini weaves a gripping script and a documentary style realism with just enough sentimentality to get your heart pumping. Sally recently received the Best British Newcomer Award at the London Film Festival and we were super excited to catch up with her and visit the estate where the film was shot.
This film was a long time in the making, what were the initial challenges that you faced? To begin with, everybody tells you how difficult it is to make a film, so I approached it with the mentality of, ‘if you only have one film to make before you die, what’s that one film going to be?’ If I’m going to go through all the blood sweat and tears, it better be something that I care about. I wanted it to be cinematic and one of the things that I came up against was a lot of the urban movies that had been made before. I’m not a particular fan of that genre and My Brother the Devil was in fact a reaction against that. I was often told when people read the script, “We’ve seen this before, this is for TV.” It was hard to explain to them if they just read the script and didn’t meet me, they’d have a certain preconception, so when approaching investors about the project, I had to try to explain my visual approach to the film. I had mood boards, photographs and essays on the visual language of the film. I made a small documentary with the real boys that inspired the film to show how you could have something authentic and realistic yet also something that is poetic and lyrical.
Could you talk a bit about how you researched the film? I have lived on a council estate in Hackney for over ten years and I wanted to set it in that world. I decided that I wanted to tell a sibling relationship story that was my starting point. Because I’m half Egyptian I made the brothers of Egyptian origin, but I also wanted to make something that was very honest, about youth, and when I first started to write the script I only got half way through and then I had to stop, because I felt like a fraud. That’s when I got to know some guys that lived locally, and I spent years getting to know them, writing at the same time and I really found the story when I was spending time with them. In the beginning, they were like “Who are you, what are you doing?” and when they realised that I didn’t want to do some sensationalist news reportage or wasn’t going to call the police, that’s when they relaxed and I told them I was writing a film and then they were constantly giving me ideas saying “Hey put this in your film,” and “I need to be in your film.”
How did you balance working with professional actors and crew with non-professional actors? What a lot of people don’t realise is that you have to cast the crew, and I went to great lengths to find the right conditions to film in and the right personalities, and that’s not always the person that has the most credits, it goes beyond that. We only had five weeks of prep, and three of those I spent very intensively with the cinematographer and the production designer. We spent 12 hour days going through the script scene by scene, working out the visual language, because we didn’t have a big lighting or camera package, we had to use available light. We were very limited in terms of the design department, so we were trying to get the maximum cinema out of the small resources we had. I knew that I needed a cinematographer who was not going to be precious and who was going to adapt around somebody kicking over a light or somebody not hitting a mark. I wanted the actors to be so free and to use the space 360 as much as possible, especially because Mo was only cast 2 days before we started filming and he’s a non-actor, it’s his first film. For a lot of the non-actors it’s about not rehearsing, it’s about allowing them to be very spontaneous, not putting pressure on them learning lines you know, taking that pressure off and I told them all on the first day, “There’s no acting required in this film, if I catch you acting I’m going to be upset.”
Was the violence in the film something you experienced first hand in your research? I was exposed to violence and I saw situations where I was with someone one second, and five minutes later they were covered in blood. What I realised is that violence isn’t the way it is in the movies where you have this gentle build up to tension. Actually there’s a lot of boredom, like this flat silence and waiting or hanging around outside a shop or street corner at 4am and then at 5am someone’s dead. When violence happens in the film, I tried to make it realistic in that way and have that stillness and to understand that these are children really, and it’s one rash act that happens in a few seconds with huge consequences. It’s a very sad situation because I’ve seen it get worse over the last six years. I spent years trying to get this film made and I felt almost like I was justifying why we needed a film about Hackney youth, and then the riots broke out on the day we were testing the camera, and a lot of those involved in the film were involved in the riots as well and it was there in the air around us and it just made me feel that this story was more important for me, to show youth in a more three dimensional way, to show their vulnerabilities, to show that they are children, to show another side. I’m feeling pessimistic because you put them into jail, where they meet the wrong kind of people and they come out with friendships and connections to crime. So, you know, it’s a tragedy, and I see the same story echoed not just in London, but Birmingham, Manchester in Glasgow. I feel like there’s this big disenfranchised youth which is being ignored and it’s going to rear its head again. The riots happened for a reason, that’s what should be addressed, the cause, the fact that youth centres were closed down, the fact that cuts are affecting people at the very bottom end of society, and those are the kids in my film.
With the film so long getting off the ground, what kept you motivated? I’m just very determined. I knew I wanted to write and direct films when I was 19 years old. Initially I was writing the script in my bedroom for a long time on my own and hanging out with boys at 3am in the morning, thinking have I gone completely mad, what am I actually doing here? I submitted the film to the Sundance screenwriters lab and that was the first thing I ever got onto, and that gave me a huge amount of inspiration and helped me keep the faith in the middle of the project onwards. I had spent all these years, and I knew it was now or never, I had pushed it so far, I was just determined to make it no matter what.
Text: Joe Cohen
Portrait of Sally: Ellis Scott