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Interview: Sally El-Hosaini

25th February 2013
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Picking up the Best Cinematography gong at Sundance is not something that most filmmakers can expect from their first feature film.

But then, most may not have the steely determination of Writer/ Director Sally El-Hosaini.

Hosaini’s debut feature My Brother the Devil tells the story of brothers Rashid (James Floyd) and Mo (Fady Elsayed), and their relationship over one summer on a Hackney council estate.

Filmed in 2011 at the height of the London Riots, Sally had previously found the task of convincing people of the value of another film about ‘youth in Hackney’ difficult. The Riots breaking out on the first day of filming, though, cemented in her mind how essential the project was.

“As a filmmaker one of the biggest things I’ve learnt is persistence,” she says. “We got a lot of rejections making My Brother the Devil, and it has to kind of empower you to go out there and want it even more.

“It’s like you’ve got to take all the noes and rejections and turn them into something positive. You think, “I’ve got to show everyone who rejected this project what an amazing film it is.”

With a host of awards, including that at Sundance and Best European Film at Berlinale, it certainly seems like Sally has done just this – although speaking to her, it seems unlikely that she would ever shout about it.

She cites her (extremely down to earth) influences as her mum (“for making me feisty”), as well as numerous poets (“I tend to like the female ones that are a bit moody, like Anne Sexton”) and “millions of directors that I love that inspire me constantly.”

Predictably, Sally is a busy woman. After completing her UK publicity engagements for the 18th March DVD release, she is off to the US in time for the film’s North American premier. The film will air in New York on 22nd March and Los Angeles on 5th April, before being rolled out in 12 other cities across the country.

The pressure must surely be on for her next film – a project she is apprehensive to shed light on, other than revealing that it is “another London film” but set in “a different world to My Brother the Devil.”

“Any filmmaker who said they weren’t worried about that after their first film has been successful would be lying,” she says.  

But still, she has a harder act than most to follow...

She says: “The biggest lesson for me was that My Brother the Devil took six years to make. And I didn’t rush it and that’s what I’m trying to focus on at the moment. I’m writing something now and I’m trying to apply similar methods to this one.”

Sally is quick to admit that she enjoys making films about people on the margins of society – those who may find themselves feeling forgotten.

She says: “I think the riots maybe just reminded everybody why it’s important to have a film about youth in general that understands or shows things from their perspective.”

Her dual heritage, being the child of a Welsh mother and an Egyptian father, is probably one of the reasons behind her interest in marginalised people, she says.

“When you’re mixed you can see two sides of something, or lots of different perspectives at the same time so that helps you.

“It’s definitely influenced me as a filmmaker. I’m interested in topics or subjects that have many different, contradictory perspectives on the same topic, if that makes sense.”

And her new film – it’s a big departure?

“It feels it,” she says, “but in lots of ways I can still see how there are similarities. I’ve managed to get out of Hackney and have a bit of Tower Hamlets so far. Eventually I’m going to work through all the boroughs of London.”

Speaking of social responsibility, what are Sally’s feelings towards Egypt? As the country in which she grew up, it must have been hard to not feel a pull in recent years?

 “There are a lot of divisions between religious and more secular sections of society and tension is ending up erupting in all different sectors,” she says. She still has family and friends in Egypt, although she hasn’t been back herself since the revolution.

Sally might be staying away from her home country for now. Fady, though, is also Egyptian – and has just returned from a trip home. The picture he paints is bleak.

“There’s no law,” he says, with a slight tone of resignation. “People are just getting stopped. Cars are just coming past and getting stopped and (people are) getting dragged out of the car - and they’ve got a new car.” Pause. “There’s no law.”

Talking about his hometown, only an hour from Cairo, he says: “It’s even happening there. Everyone is affected.

“All my family are in Egypt but they’re in our town so they’re not really in the middle of Tahrir Square in Cairo - but they’re still affected. It’s just conflict now. There’s conflict everywhere.”

Sally has high praise for those whose artistic talents manage to flourish under such repressive situations. 

She says: “We actually had a lot of struggle getting our film into Middle East festivals. A lot told us to not even bother applying, then we got into Cairo Film Festival and we were in competition and up for the Tahrir Square Prize, and then they suddenly stopped answering our emails - and the Ministry of Culture sacked the Artistic Director of the festival and all the staff, and they decided to reprogram the festival and we were no longer invited.

“I take my hat off to filmmakers who are making films in the Middle East and in countries all over the world where there’s a lot of censorship. Sometimes the very best cinema is coming out of places where there is censorship because they have to be extra clever to find ways of saying things.

She adds: “It’s a miracle that any film gets made when you realise how difficult it is.”

This year Sally is also sitting on the board of Bird’s Eye View, a festival for female filmmakers, which is returning to the BFI Southbank in April with a focus on Arab women.

“What’s crazy to me is the fact that there are so few women in the film industry,” she says. “There are only 12% of screenwriters that are women and 8% of directors, and graduating each year from film school there are 50% women and 50% men. So you have to ask yourself – if there are an equal number of graduates why is it that there are only men in the roles of screenwriter and director?

 “I think it really is that as a woman you’ve got to be extra pushy and extra out there and also once you get to a position where you do have a bit of power you have to bring other women in.”

Lucy spoke to Sally as part of the BFI Future Film Festival at the BFI Southbank.

My Brother the Devil is released on DVD in the UK on 18th March.

Join the conversation on twitter with the hashtag #MyBrotherTheDevil and check out the film’s Facebook page




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