In recent years, British cineastes have been beset by a spate of urban council estate dramas such as Kidulthood, Sket and Shank. Audiences could be forgiven of growing somewhat weary of the genre that seems overly reliant on sensationalism and the use of the same hackneyed tropes. Often, their greatest failing is that they give little or no insight into what life is actually like for the often misunderstood sector of society that they portray. Having already won prizes at Berlin and Sundance, and premiering at the 56th London Film Festival, My Brother The Devil is a much weightier proposition.
“There are a lot of urban dramas and when you hear that something is set in Hackney you automatically assume that it will be similar to them. The aim of the film was to do something more interesting and make something that was honest and real. In that way my film could possibly be seen as a reaction to other urban dramas because I don’t like them. I find them a bit sensational.”
My Brother The Devil is the story of charismatic drug-dealer Rashid (James Floyd) and his teenage sibling, the bright but naive Mo (Fady Elsayed) and their involvement in and subsequent efforts to break free from the local gang culture within their Hackney estate. One of the most striking things about My Brother The Devil is how incredibly authentic the world it inhabits is and how emotionally nuanced the characters are. This is the result of half a decade worth of research for Sally El Hosaini: “I’ve lived on a council estate in Hackney myself for five years so I feel qualified to show it.” One of the ways in which El Hosaini achieved this authenticity was through the use of non-actors. “One of the great advantages of working with non-actors is that they know the world inside out and the language. Aymen Hamdouchi who plays Repo in the film was my script editor.”
The performances from rising star James Floyd, as Rashid, has rightfully garnered a great deal of praise but his involvement in the film was never a certainty. “Originally, I didn’t want to have an actor for James’ role but for someone to go on the trajectory that Rashid does they couldn’t be from the world of the film. We did an audition and it was apparent that [James] had done much more work than anyone else. I needed someone who wasn’t going to stand out as an actor and blend in with all the other non-actors and someone who was going to go method. Luckily, James likes working that way and I felt that he was someone who was going to be prepared to immerse himself in the world of the film so he got to know a lot of the boys who were involved in gangs and he spent five months living and just soaking it up so that he could give an authentic performance.”
My Brother The Devil is El Hosaini’s debut feature but it is so accomplished that it feels like the work of a far more seasoned film-maker. The extent of her ambition are on display when she talks about her influences: “I’m really influenced by Terrence Malick. In pre-production we watched a lot of his films as well as Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park.” The influence of these lauded American auteurs can be seen in My Brother The Devil in the meditative, almost poetic, way the film is shot, aided by Stuart Earl’s superbly reflective score. As opposed to the unimaginative, this’ll do nature in which many British urban dramas are shot, My Brother The Devil is visually stunning, even winning the cinematography award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance. “One of the great things about cinema is the aesthetic and how you remember it and I spent a lot of time with my director of photography and production designer working out the way we would shoot it.” Forgoing the typically grimy aesthetic of many films of a similar setting, El Hosaini chose to use a more subjective colour palette, which at points bursts with colour.
Indeed, nothing in the film is black and white: El Hosaini poses questions that she doesn’t necessarily have answers to and refrains from direct polemic, leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusion. “With every film you hope will make an audience think and change their perception. No matter what you do everything is a political choice in a way. Even making a film about this is in some way a political statement but ultimately the film is the story of the brothers and that is the heart of my film.”