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19 November 2012

'My Brother the Devil' director puts Hackney on the international stage

LUSH, green leaves clash against the blue and white panelling of Homerton flats; clear skies look beautifully saturated; an over-the-shoulder shot on top of an estate shows the borough’s night-time sprawl and urban mystery. In some ways, feature film My Brother the Devil feels like a love letter to Hackney.

It’s the first full-length film for its writer, director, producer and resident Sally El-Hosani. The film – starring James Floyd, Hollywood actor Said Taghmaoui, and newcomer and resident Fady Elsayed – was shot almost exclusively in the borough, mainly on Gascoyne Estate.

It is now picking up awards across the globe – from a cinematography honour at Sundance, to best newcomer at the BFI London Film Festival. It has also been well received at 40 international film festivals and went on general release across the UK on 9 November. It will be seen in US cinemas from next year.

“I just made a film that I would have liked to see,” says the 36-year-old, with more than a hint of embarrassment, adding: “The feedback has been wonderful. People seem to relate to it in other countries. There is something really universal about the story and maybe it will get more people all over the world interested in Hackney.”

On the surface the story is simple, perhaps drearily familiar: two brothers deeply involved in an East London gang.

But before critics pass it off as another gritty and stereotypically gloomy working class film, this is a skewed coming-of-age tale about the relationship between a bright young student and his loving older brother, and what happens when their ideals are challenged, and it affects the choices they subsequently make.

They have traditional parents who leave the plastic on the sofa; gang friends whose personalities can change from caring to contemptible; and the identity crisis of balancing their Egyptian heritage with living in multi-cultural London. As Sally describes it, her film tries to be authentic and ‘heart-warming’.

She says: “I’ve lived in Hackney for 10 years and it was my intention to make an honest film, showing the grass, and the weather and optimism. I love the place, it’s home but there’s also the darker side, and that does involve gangs.”

Adding: “I wanted to portray the characters more three dimensionally, their individual personalities, not just people to be afraid of. Some of these people have children and families.”

But all this authenticity took research. For Sally – a self taught, half-Welsh, half-Egyptian filmmaker who grew up in Cairo and rarely watched films until she returned to her Welsh birthplace aged 16 – getting the language right was one of the most difficult tasks.

“The whole film took about five years. In the first year there was a lot of researching and I spent a lot of time talking to gangs in Hackney and Brixton,” she reveals.

But because it did take so long – the director admits to being a perfectionist – she laughs: “We had to constantly update the slang because it changes so quickly. What is normal one year can change a year later.”

Even one of the actors from the film doubled up as a script consultant to make sure the language was up to date.

As well as Sally and Fady, many of the crew are from the borough and nearly all the supporting actors were taken from Gascoyne Estate.

She says: “The community was amazing. People would come and ask what we were doing and help us if they could. And Hackney Council’s Film Office really got behind us.

“When we packed up and left Gascoyne, we thought the experience was fun, but we really wanted to leave a legacy.”

The crew set up a not-for-profit community club, which intends to hold film screenings every month. Club members’ first outing was a trip to the West End to see the London Film Festival premiere of My Brother the Devil.

Indeed, one resident, Althea Dyer, said: “I’ve never been to the cinema in the West End before. I’m glad my debut involved seeing such a fantastic film with great people.”

Sally concludes: “People say when you make your first film, write what you know. Maybe I’ve made this Hackney film now I can move on. But this borough is so interesting and vibrant – there is nowhere I’d rather live.”

Writer, director, producer and Hackney resident Sally El-Hosani, who shot My Brother the Devil in the borough

Writer, director, producer and Hackney resident Sally El-Hosani, who shot My Brother the Devil in the borough

Writer, director, producer and Hackney resident Sally El-Hosani, who shot My Brother the Devil in the borough

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