Egyptian-Welsh director Sally El Hosaini on making films that smash stereotypes: 'I want to be happy with what I put out'
Her new film tells the story of Syrian refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini
For several years after the international success of her debut feature film My Brother The Devil, Sally El Hosaini rejected many of the directorial offers that followed.
It might be counter-intuitive to anyone who has spent years knocking on the notoriously hard-to-open door to the film industry, but El Hosaini has her reasons. For one, she was not a fan of the stereotypical subject matter she was receiving – a lot of ISIS and honour killings.
“They saw I was a woman, they saw my name and they approached me with those stories that I didn’t want to do,” says the Egyptian-Welsh filmmaker, during Mena Arts UK and the Arab British Centre’s first Friday Hangout event, held last week over Zoom. “I want to be happy with what I put out in the world.”
The other reason was focus. She wanted to direct her energy towards developing her second feature.
However, the script that finally got El Hosaini to say yes was The Swimmers, a film based on the true story of Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee and Olympic swimmer.
Mardini’s story made international headlines when, after fleeing war in Syria, she departed for Greece from Turkey in an overcrowded dinghy on which the engine failed 15 minutes into the trip. Mardini, her sister and two others swam for three and a half hours in open waters to stop the dinghy from capsizing.
Co-written by British screenwriter Jack Thorne, the film is being produced by British production house Working Title Films and Netflix. It is currently in pre-production, and will be filmed in the UK and Turkey.
“I know it sounds cliched, but as soon as I read the script, I knew I had to do it,” says El Hosaini. She admits she was hesitant to read it at first, but by the time she’d finished, the filmmaker already had the images of the final shot in her head. Starting at the end is how El Hosaini describes her creative process. “I start by thinking about how I want to leave the audience feeling and thinking, and then I work backwards.”
El Hosaini recognises this might be overly circuitous, but as she has not been formally trained in filmmaking, she has her own way of doing things.
How her film journey started
Raised in Cairo in a family of teachers and scientists, El Hosaini says she didn’t even know she wanted to make films until she got into university. “It wasn’t in my consciousness when I was young to do film,” she says. But, after feeling uninspired by the degree she was pursuing at university, she had her light-bulb moment. “I realised that I’m happiest around pictures, writing and people, and then it was like: ‘Oh, films, I want to make films.’”
Without credentials or connections in the industry, she set about working her way up. Her degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies became an asset in the documentary world at a time when an abundance of stories from the region were desperately wanted. Nevertheless, after more than 10 years in the field, she quit the job she had at the BBC to make feature films.
After writing three short films that went nowhere, El Hosaini decided to go all in with a feature and wrote My Brother The Devil, a crime drama about two sons of Egyptian immigrants coming of age in East London. It took her six years of hustling before it finally hit screens.
In 2009, El Hosaini got accepted to the Sundance Middle East Labs, where she developed the script for My Brother The Devil. She also went to Cannes three years in a row, networking with professionals in the industry, while staying at a friend’s in another town and driving into the glitzy enclave every day.
She emailed producers she did not know and cold-called directors who had never heard of her. “I called up a director I had heard was filming in Yemen and said to him: ‘I’m Sally, you don’t know me but you should know me,’” she says, with a laugh. The director had lost his assistant producer and El Hosaini had lived in Yemen for a time during university, so she was a good fit. She jumped on a flight to Sana’a and came back with her first feature film credit, on the drama A New Day in Old Sana’a.
When My Brother The Devil finally came to life on the screen in 2012, it was met with rapture and applause, picking up major prizes at Sundance, Berlin and London film festivals. She was later selected for Bafta’s 2017 Elevate programme and was subsequently invited to sit on Bafta’s Film Committee.
For El Hosaini, it was all down to perseverance and that is exactly what she keeps telling aspiring filmmakers.
“Keep making stuff, align yourself with the right people ... Eventually you find your tribe, the people you connect with.”
Friday Hangout talks with industry professionals from the Middle East and North Africa take place until March 19. More information is available at www.arabbritishcentre.org.uk
Updated: February 13, 2021 02:50 PM