My Brother the Devil was a deserving winner of the Excellence in Cinematography Award (World Cinema) at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and winner of Best European Film at Berlinale 2012. It was also in selection at the Sydney Film Festival where writer/ director Sally El Hosaini was a guest jury member.
The film is a bold first feature choice for El Hosaini and her vision of drawing an audience into the warm, real life environments of her characters is amply supported by cinematographer David Raedeker.
The lush palette and intimate filmic style, shot in cinemascope to pick up every nuance and subtlety of space and composition, creates a terrific canvas for this beautifully realised drama about two brothers who are faced with critical life choices in east London’s multi-ethnic gang underworld. Charismatic new talent James Floyd won the coveted lead role of Rashid, the elder brother who becomes role model, for good and ill (hence the ‘devil’ of the title), to the younger Mo. Floyd immersed himself in the world of East End gangs for five months in order to build a powerfully authentic performance that carries the audience over every scene of Rashid’s rise, fall and redemption.
‘I was being a fly on the wall in the real life gangs’ world,’ he explains in an exclusive interview at Sundance. ‘A lot of it was just listening, then you get the physicality, you get the voice, so it kind of happens naturally. These were the real guys so you have to understand them, you have to empathise with them, otherwise it doesn’t work, especially in this kind of movie where it’s very natural and very real.’
Authenticity was paramount for this first feature by El Hosaini, who spent four years researching the film. She didn’t train at film school but has many years’ experience in documentary and script editing. It was these skills that she fell back on to research the lives of boys in east London suburbs like Hackney and Brixton. ‘I was searching for something more authentic,’ she explains. ‘And that whole time I was soaking up the culture and the language with which to write.’
Older brother Rash is putting drug money in his mum’s purse, using his muscle and charisma to succeed as a ‘breadwinner’ in this hard world of gang affiliations and violence. As younger brother Mo starts on the dangerous path of emulating him, Rash’s life is transformed by the arrival of Feisel, a photographer and ex-criminal who challenges Rash with radically different life choices.
‘When I used to pitch the film and say it was set on a council estate in Hackney, people would say, oh, dark grim Britain, but that is an outsider’s point of view. When a place is home to you, you’re not looking at it with those judgements, so it was really important for me that the audience would feel they were on the inside looking out, living on that estate with those kids. There’s a lot of love, and I wanted a visual style where we became really close to the two brothers.’
The film achieves this from the first frame as the camera weaves around the characters, drawing us with them using close ups and high angles in a very naturalistic style that makes us involved, and renders the characters attractive even if their environment is bleak. We feel this is their home, full of warm and visceral life. The two brothers of the title are from a first generation Egyptian family where the father is still talking about his younger life ‘back home’, and where the mother keeps a plastic cover on her new sofa.
Stories told from the point of view of an Egyptian family in England are uncommon so El Hosaini, from half Welsh, half Egyptian origins, was pleased to have presented that viewpoint in her film, and to have cast Egyptian actors in key roles.
Many of the real life gang members who El Hosaini met (a few of whom appear in the film) never break out of the downward spiral of the criminal path they have landed on, but in Rash and Mo’s world there is the possibility of new outcomes.
‘It’s a universal story of brotherhood’ says El Hosaini. ‘I hope that the themes and issues of prejudice and identity are a background layer to that universal story.’