A London La Haine, Sally El-Hosaini’s mesmerising debut My Brother The Devil looks at brotherhood, homosexuality and turf wars in post-riot Hackney.
Tainted Love by Alexa Dalby
My Brother The Devil is an original, exciting take on London gang drama and a stunning debut for director and screenwriter Sally El Hosaini, winning her the Best British Newcomer award at the 2012 BFI London Film Festival. It’s fluidly shot, fast-moving, the atmosphere feels authentically urban contemporary and its dialogue is up to date with the latest urban street slang. Although it’s set amid gang culture and crime, brotherhood and the brotherly bond is at the heart of her story, and she has created two complex characters. Impressionable 14-year-old Mo (Fady Elsayad) idolises his handsome and charismatic gang member older brother Rashid (James Floyd) and the story is told, for the most part, from Mo’s viewpoint using verité camerawork. Both give excellent, natural performances and the love and closeness between the two is clearly shown.
The brothers live in a council block with their hardworking Egyptian immigrant parents. It’s a traditional household, the type of home where plastic covers are left on the soft furnishings. There they conform to their parents’ culture even though, having grown up as Londoners, their attitude to it is ambivalent. They still share a bunk-bedded bedroom, even when Rashid’s girlfriend Vanessa (Elarica Gallacher) sneaks in through the window for a booty call. Outside are the streets, filmed mainly during the day in sunshine, avoiding the nighttime cliché. Their home turf is ruled by warring gangs, a closed community, where people have no hope for the future – “It doesn’t get shitter than this” says one character. Youths have three choices – to join, escape or risk being killed. Trying to copy and impress his drug-dealing older brother, Mo is proud to be running errands for his gang, but is not yet tough enough. He gets humiliatingly mugged by their rivals for the drug deal cash he’s carrying and his trainers. Rashid himself is struggling to escape from gang life, trying to prevent an uncomprehending Mo from getting caught up in gang culture before it’s too late, and aim for college instead. After a rival gang stabs Rashid’s friend Izzi in the street – a young guy who was avoiding involvement with the gangs and going to interviews to get a decent job – Rashid sets out to shoot Demon, the gang leader, but chickens out.
But now even more determined to change his life, he gets a job as an assistant to a friend of Izzi’s, an ex-gang member, now a photographer, Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui, who co-wrote and starred in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, and whose role here is like that character years later, Hosaini says). Sayyid has broken free from his past and he opens Rashid’s eyes to a different intellectual world. When Rashid invites him to a meal with his parents, they are thrilled to be able to have an intelligent political discussion with him about Middle Eastern politics. But Sayyid also opens Rashid’s eyes to a different kind of sexuality. He’s a controversial character, an out gay man, a subject of prejudice, and not accepted either in Muslim or gang culture.
Amid the seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence, Mo’s conversations with his calm and clear-sighted young friend Aisha (Letitia Wright), a second-generation Somali, are an antidote and a hint at another way of living. Aisha is aware of the violent culture all around, but determined not to become a part of it. From the start Mo is hostile to Sayyid and, confused by the changes in his brother, goes behind his back and joins he gang he’s left. When he spies on him in Sayyid’s studio and sees them making love, he can’t accept the truth about their relationship. He can’t admit his brother is gay – for him it’s more acceptable to lie to his gang that Rashid and Sayyid are terrorists – but his betrayal sets in motion a chain of violent events which he doesn’t understand and can’t control. Sayyid is beaten up and Rashid leaves for good. His parents understand – but Mo finds out when he looks for Rashid in the shower and finds it empty.
Hosaini says she first formed the idea in 2007 and then developed the script, first at Sundance Labs with advice from screenwriter Tiger Williams of Menace II Society, and then in conjunction with script consultant Aymen Hamdouchi. The film was 100% independently financed for under £1 million. It was filmed in Hackney, in the East End of London. Hosaini set up her production office in the estate where the location filming took place, embedded in the local community, and a few locals had bit parts. Some of the filming took place during last year’s London riots, which meant that some location scenes had to be rewritten and shot inside – hence the scene in the tattoo parlour. The film deals with things she says she feels passionate about: “I started writing after 7/7, when I saw the way Arab youth were presented in the media. It didn’t represent the Arab boys I saw around me every day. I wanted to make a non-terrorist film.” Hosaini herself is half Egyptian and half Welsh, and lives in Hackney.
Whilst gang culture may seem a familiar starting point, My Brother The Devil develops organically out of its writer and director’s close involvement with her community, to create something new from it. It takes second-generation Britons from a multitude of different backgrounds and gives them a voice, it addresses prejudices to homosexuality in their community and also in gang culture despite its casual acceptance of violence, all of this with great emotional truth. It is an incredibly mature first film.
My Brother The Devil is released in the UK on 9th November 2012