Sally El Hosaini recently won the Best British Newcomer prize at the London Film Festival. This came in addition to the honours that her debut film, My Brother the Devil, picked up at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. Now the movie is making its Middle East debut at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF).
It's a fitting reward for the 36-year-old filmmaker, who embedded herself for years on an estate in Hackney, meeting gang members and learning their language and culture to create an authentic and genuine character study of what it means to be a young, working-class Londoner today.
My Brother the Devil tells the story of two brothers and their love for each other. Rash (James Floyd), the older of the two, has been dealing drugs and earning respect on his estate for some time but boredom has set in. After befriending the well-to-do photographer Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui), he's looking to broaden his horizons. Rash's streetwise and cunning younger brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) hopes to step into his shoes.
Such a synopsis could well read like many other British urban youth dramas that have appeared since 2006's Kidulthood. Yet Hosaini rightly rejects any comparisons to that film; she's made a drama that's more Ken Loach than Noel Clarke.
"I think it's quite derogatory that people just target anything that is set in an urban environment, that is an important part of society and culture, by labelling it in the same category of a certain genre of popcorn movie that is made in Britain," she says.
"A world can't be contained by the way that some people have [made] films about [it]. I find it a little insulting to the kids that the only representation of themselves on screen is that kind of movie because they aren't treated as human beings."
Only by meeting the young people living on estates did Hosaini begin to understand and humanise them: "I started to write the script five years ago. I got three pages in and stopped because it wasn't flowing. I didn't write a first draft for more than a year. I didn't know my story but the more time I spent with the boys, as the only female in a very macho, manly world, I began thinking about what it meant to be a man and the pressure on them to be a man, and I was quite intrigued."
Her original impulse to make the film came from a personal tragedy. "My brother died when he was 24. I wanted to do a film that explored the brotherhood relationship."
After getting to know the young adults on the estates, Hosaini thinks they are often misunderstood. The London riots of August 2011 happened during production of the film ("The Hackney riots affected our shoot. We had to change things last minute," she says), and Hosaini sympathises with those who believe that the rioters' genuine grievances were lost in a media washout that decried them as nothing more than kids whose only goal was looting televisions.
Being adaptable and thinking fast on her feet were necessary throughout the film's production. The Arab Spring was even incorporated. The protagonists have an Egyptian background, just like the director. In the movie, the boys' parents are very excited by the events.
"I think the Egyptian revolution, you cannot ignore [it]. It's like the Berlin Wall coming down," says Hosaini. "It's an event that resonated with every Egyptian. The boys' ambivalence towards the revolution is very honest because these boys are Londoners who are ambivalent to their cultural heritage and even religion. They see themselves as being from Hackney, not Cairo."
My Brother the Devil screens tomorrow at 9.15pm and on Friday at 6.15pm, at Mall of the Emirates. Visit www.dubaifilmfest.com for details