“I thought I’d messed up my life because I hadn’t studied film.” Despite not having formal schooling in film, Sally El Hosaini found another route to directing.
El Hosaini was born in Swansea, Wales to an Egyptian father and Welsh mother. She was raised in Cairo but at 16, her mother encouraged her to leave home in order to study at one of the United World Colleges in Wales. At Durham University, El Hosaini studied Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. How did she find film, then?
“I wrote poetry and developed my own photographs as a kid,” El Hosaini told The Guardian. After university, she taught English literature at a girls’ school in Sana’a, Yemen and worked for Amnesty International. “Then I found this place called UK Arts International.” El Hosaini was a trainee to the theatre director John Sichel. She worked on Middle Eastern documentaries but started to have moral questions about investigative journalism.
She worked as a script editor and researcher on the BAFTA and Emmy-winning HBO Films/BBC Drama mini-series House of Saddam. “I was in Baghdad during the war in 2003 and the ex-commander of Saddam’s army took us to his house. I met his wife and daughters, who had not been outside for years because he feared for their safety. He taught them to shoot guns. And I remember thinking: “That’s the real story. How do you live inside four walls?” It made me realise I wanted to work in fiction. I got a job as a script editor in BBC drama. Later I started making my own films.”
El Hosaini has been a long time resident of Hackney and noticed the teenage boys hanging around her neighborhood. “They fascinated me, especially the Arab boys who had a cultural upbringing to which I could relate. At first I was interested in the gang as a surrogate family, but the more I got to know the boys, I was drawn to their struggles. I spent a lot of time in their company listening to their stories,” El Hosaini said.
While El Hosaini wrote the script for My Brother the Devil and worked to secure funding, she directed two short films, The Fifth Bowl (2008) and Henna Night, about a young woman in a lesbian relationship. Henna Night was selected for the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. “I’m interested in people on the margins of society; outsiders and outcasts,” said El Hosaini. “Being Welsh-Egyptian–half from one place, half from another–you always see both sides of everything. It’s like having split personality because you’re navigating these two worlds.”
My Brother the Devil took six years to make but El Hosaini said she was not deterred by the time. She said she was excited to present a gay Arab gangster as a lead character. “I think as a filmmaker you have a responsibility about what you’re putting out into the world. I was determined the film would end on a message of hope.” She participated in the 2009 Sundance Directors and Screenwriters lab to develop the film. Later, in 2012, the film would be shown at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won Best Cinematography. The film also received accolades at the Berlinale and BFI London Film Festival.
The film explores the gang presence in the outer boroughs of London. Rashid (James Floyd) and his brother Mo (Fady Elsayed), live with their parents on a council estate in Hackney. Mo, the younger brother, looks up to Rash. Rash is a member of a gang of British Arabs who often spar over territory (and sometimes women) with another gang led by Demon. Mo knows about his brother’s involvement in a local gang but is happy to do his bidding anyway. On an errand for Rash, Mo encounters Demon’s gang and reports the activity to Rash and his friends.
Rash’s best friend, Izzi (Anthony Welsh) starts talking about looking for a proper job and getting out of the gang now that he’s a father. Izzi introduces Rash to his friend Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui) who is a successful photographer and one of Izzi’s clients.
During a blackout, Mo goes down to the local shop to pay his family’s electric bill and once again encounters Demon and his gang. Mo calls on Rash and his friends for back up and the street fight ends in Izzi getting shot. Neither Rash nor Mo know how to deal with Izzi’s death, both believing they are responsible. Rash wants to take revenge on Demon but chickens out. He visits Sayyid in order to keep up Izzi’s deliveries and as he starts to spend more time with Sayyid, the more Rash wants to get out of the gang. Sayyid offers Rash a job as his assistant and Rash invites him to dinner with his family. Mo is resentful of Rash’s new friend and starts to act out. With Rash laying low from his gang friends, they recruit Mo for their activities, who is a willing participant.
Rash’s relationship with Sayyid takes a turn when Sayyid tries to kiss him. Rash rages out of his apartment, calling him a faggot. In his own struggle with his sexual identity, Rash meets up with his girlfriend Vanessa and forces her to have sex. This doesn’t make him feel any better and in fact, he comforts Vanessa afterwards. He returns to Sayyid’s, only to fall into bed with him.
The film deals deftly not only with cultural identity but sexual identity as well and on top of all that, mixes in familial relationships and brotherhood.
Like most female filmmakers who deal with the masculine, El Hosaini was frequently asked why a woman would explore such male territory. “You look at Almodóvar – he makes films about women and people don’t blink an eye. I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a boy. Virginia Woolf has this great quote that all writers should be androgynous. Having said that if I’d been a man, I don’t think I could have entered the world [the gangs in Hackney] the way I did. I wasn’t a threat. Also being Arab and Muslim helped,” El Hosaini told The Guardian.
The day she started filming, riots broke out in Hackney. “The riots underlined why I’d been trying to raise money for this project. Never has there been a time when we more needed to see an honest depiction of this world and its disenfranchised youth.”
After My Brother the Devil, El Hosaini was one of two directors chosen by Danny Boyle to direct Babylon, a television series Boyle co-created and produced for Channel 4 and Sundance. Now El Hosaini is developing another LLondon-basedfeature film. “Again it’s a movie about the people on the edges of society, but I’ve had enough of teenage boys for awhile!”
This post originally appeared on laurencbyrd.wordpress.com. We'll be posting one director spotlight by Lauren each week.
Lauren C. Byrd is a freelance writer and blogger. After leaving Tenessee post-college, she has lived in Los Angeles, upstate New York, Queens, and Los Angeles again. She loves to talk about women in film but also cares about good TV, documentaries, podcasts, true crime, journalism, and social justice.
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