Another side of Hackney – My Brother the Devil

My Brother the Devil film

Hackney-made: Sally El Hosaini’s new film, My Brother the Devil. Photograph: Etienne Bol

Set on a Homerton council estate, My Brother the Devil is a début film by Welsh-Egyptian director Sally El Hosaini that won a cinematography award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And El Hosaini herself won the Best British Newcomer award at last month’s London Film Festival. Not bad for a first-time effort.

Tracing the relationship between two brothers of Egyptian descent, Rashid (James Floyd) and Mo (Fady Elsayed) who live in a cramped flat with their traditionally-minded parents, My Brother… takes many startling turns that transcend the average ‘social realism’ genre film.

El Hosaini, who has been a resident of Hackney for ten years, speaks in measured tones about her project. “It’s been six years making the film. I thought the film would be a micro-budget so I’d have to set it on the council estate where I live.”
The film’s intelligence, plot dynamics, and subtlety of characters lift it above similar portrayals of ‘gritty’ estates.

El Hosaini concurs: “A lot of the urban films that I see are phoney. Just because a film is set on an estate, it doesn’t have to be grim, depressing and one-dimensional. I wanted to show another side to Hackney – there are blue skies in the film.”

She admits that she was initially hesitant in her approach to the material: “when I first set out to write this film, I felt sort of like a fraud. But I really got into great lengths to know the people.”

For preparation before shooting started, “I hung out with the kind of boys that you see in the film…I got to know a lot of gangs. With James Floyd, he’s a middle-class kid from Finchley, but he spent five months immersed in the role, learning the language. And for Mo [Elsayed], he’s from Hackney and this was his first time acting.”

The authentic feel to the film extends to the fact that, according to El Hosaini, “ninety-five per cent of the film is set in Hackney. A lot of the cast and crew are from Hackney. A lot of the kids from the estate are actually in the film.”

Indeed, a rapport developed between the film crew and locals during shooting: “The whole community really embraced the film and allowed us to film there. They set up a cinema club with my producers after we’d left. The first screening was the film. They screened it in their community hall – that’s a regular thing now where they have monthly cinema nights. So that was a really nice thing to leave behind as a legacy.”

More surprising still is the presence of Saïd Taghmaoui, famous previously for his role in Mathieu Kassovitz’s seminal 1995 film La Haine, set on a housing project in one of Paris’ blighted banlieues. Taghmaoui’s appearance in My Brother… – as a Parisian of Arab origin transplanted to London, where he runs an upmarket photo studio – turns Rashid and Mo’s life upside-down, and leads to one of the film’s most surprising twists.

El Hosaini got to know the actor whilst working with him on the BBC series The House of Saddam. She admits that “I wrote that part for him, and I told him that I wanted him to be in this film. I loved La Haine and I wrote the character for him.”

El Hosaini – who grew up in the Egyptian capital Cairo but moved to her birthplace Wales when she was 16 – is effusive about her adopted borough: “Of all the places I’ve lived in London, I feel most at home in Hackney. I like the diversity of everything – shopping in the Turkish supermarkets with Middle-Eastern food. There’s just more colour in Hackney – it reminds me of Cairo, the sense of community.”

Yet she is ambivalent about the relentless gentrification of the area: “There are some estates near me that have been knocked down and turned into luxury flats. Hackney is changing – you just look at the skyline and all the cranes. There is new Hackney and old Hackney; there are these bubbles where people co-exist but never really intertwine.”

She is more upbeat when considering the impact that the film has had so far: “By the end of the year, it’ll have been received at forty film festivals around the world. It’s a 100 per cent indie film; we’re not backed by any huge bodies. Ultimately it’s a low-budget film, so it’s amazing how well we’re doing. A filmmaker hopes that they can connect to an audience. You just kind of make it hoping that people will relate to it.”

My Brother the Devil is on general release nationwide from today, Friday 9 November.

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