One Welsh-Egyptian filmmaker aims to shatter Arab stereotypes

While the subject matter is close to her heart, Sally El Hosaini's first feature film is not autobiographical, she says.

Director Sally El Hosaini (C) with actors Fady ElSayed and Letitia Wright during the filming of her new movie titled  My Brother The Devil. Photo Courtesy David Raedeker/Sundance
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Sally El Hosaini believes she may be breaking ground with her first feature film, a story about two brothers living in the Hackney area of London, where the lures of youth, culture and crime are strong.

"You rarely see any Arab characters in British films," said the 35-year-old Welsh-Egyptian filmmaker. "To my knowledge, this is one of the first.

"We have a lot of films that are about the British Asian experience, rather than explicitly Arab. Usually the Arabs are either terrorists or bad guys, and that's how we're used to seeing them.

"But because I was exploring this in a much more three-dimensional way, it didn't matter where they were from, they're just people," she said.

Al Hosaini was speaking at the Sundance Film Festival as she prepared to premiere My Brother the Devil in Park City, Utah. The film went on to win the cinematography award in the World Cinema Dramatic Feature category before the festival wrapped on Sunday.

Her feature debut is about two brothers, Rashid (James Floyd) and Mohammed, or Mo (Fady El Sayed). Their father is a bus conductor. Rashid sells drugs with a local gang and puts the money that he earns in his mother's purse. Mo idolises his older brother. El Hosaini filmed last summer in Hackney, where she has lived for the past decade. Events beyond her control gave her Anglo-Egyptian story added drama.

"We shot in July, August and September last summer," she said. "It was quite crazy because the Hackney riots broke out when we were testing the camera. Suddenly, there were gangs of youths smashing windows in shops, all the streets were closed down, helicopters were in the sky.

"It felt like Baghdad," she said. "I went to Baghdad to do some documentaries previously, and that's what it reminded me of. I said, 'Oh, my God, Hackney's just become Baghdad'.

"A lot of the kids I knew in Hackney who were part of the project were also involved in the riots. It made me feel a real sense of urgency, thinking that this film has to come out, a film that's honest about their lives and the pressures they face, the growing pains for teenagers today."

El Hosaini never went to film school. The protests offered a crash-course in improvisation. "There was a rule that you weren't allowed to shoot on the streets of London all summer. We had to do a lot of last-minute rewrites. We had to think on our feet. It didn't bother me too much. In that sense, the script is just a blueprint of an approximation of the story. Really, a script is just to get money. Then you actually get there on the ground and things happen and you see what's available and in front of you, and you end up going with it."

A ban on filming fights outdoors forced the filmmakers inside, and eventually out of the neighbourhood, to leafy Wimbledon a world away. "Our sound stage had last been an English country village," she said. "Our production designer turned it into Hackney in a day."

El Hosaini, who hasn't been back to Egypt since protests broke out in Cairo a year ago, stressed that the film's story isn't autobiographical. "It comes from a lot of different places, and it's completely fiction."

Screenings of My Brother the Devil at Sundance were sold out with waiting lists - indicating that word of mouth was strong.

"Questions after the film have been about identity and the immigration experience, and the audience also got the universal elements of the story," said El Hosaini. "I was stopped on the shuttle bus by a Nigerian who said: 'Your film really touched my heart'. A woman from Los Angeles wearing a headscarf told me that the film reminded her of what her brothers had gone through."

The film took five years to make, a stretch that included a trip to the Sundance Middle East Screenwriters Lab, which is operated with the Royal Jordanian Film Commission, and two trips to the US for screenwriting and directing labs at the Sundance Institute in Utah.

"I remember, almost two years back, that I was saying, 'Gosh, I've got to shoot this film already'. I'm glad I didn't because now it almost feels like a fine wine - the script, the project and my own thoughts and ideas are so much further developed by taking that extra bit of time."

El Hosaini was born in the UK, "but only for passport reasons. My mum came over to have me, but then she went back to Egypt with me. I grew up in Cairo, my home city," she said.

The daughter of a Welsh mother and an Egyptian engineer father - "I didn't get the maths genes", she points out - El Hosaini watched some classic black-and-white Egyptian melodramas growing up, but her real love was poetry. "In poetry you distil language down into some images. It's a similar process as in film. You can start off with an emotion or an image, but you find the word or the image that conveys something that's much bigger."

After studying politics, she worked for Amnesty International for several years before turning to film, working on documentaries in the Middle East and editing scripts for BBC Drama.

"After that it reached the point that I'd learnt enough - the pain of not doing films was greater than the pain of doing them," she said.

"I learnt how to direct actors through working on documentaries. You meet people and very quickly need to develop a relationship of trust and openness, and manipulate and move around people to get what you're trying to get out of the subject. Those were invaluable skills to use on a film set, especially when I was mixing actors with non-actors."

But don't expect a documentary in My Brother the Devil, she warned. "Although it touches on themes of prejudice and identity, really at its heart it's a love story - a love story between brothers, and about brotherhood. The story is much more emotional and psychological then the where and when and the context."

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