Award-winning Hackney director speaks about her film on gang culture, released today

Today (November 9) sees the release of My Brother The Devil, a film set in Hackney starring young people born and bred there.

It’s is a labour of love by Sally El Hosaini, who has lived in Hackney for the last 10 years.

Her film, which portrays the relationship between two brothers and depicts gang culture in Hackney, won an award for Best British Newcomer at the recent BFI London Film Festival. It also won Best European Film at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival.

It’s all the more impressive given the fact that this is Sally’s first feature length film.

I meet her in a cafe nestled among a parade of shops on a council estate, just minutes away from Gascoyne Estate in Wick Road, Homerton where the film was made.

The coffee shop is retro chic and one of the many signs of Hackney’s gentrification – just like the brand new block of flats being built opposite.

Although these worlds exist side-by-side, it is the world of the disenfranchised that Miss El Hosaini seeks to focus on in her urban drama.

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It is a world of gangs, violence and drugs but also of family, love and hope. It is one of the many narratives of nameless teenage boys who make the headlines for gang wars and endless reprisals.

“They’re just kids”, she says. “You can stereotype the way youths (and Arabs) are portrayed in the media. But they do have hopes and dreams and are vulnerable. It’s no surprise that all the youth centres were closed in Tottenham the week before the riots broke out.”

The film took five years to make – largely due to lack of funding. She spent a lot of the time getting to know boys involved in gangs in Highbury, Brixton and Hackney.

She admits there were times when she was “hanging out on street corners at 4am” that she questioned why she gave up her job in the BBC’s drama department, but had no regrets after the riots broke out.

“When the riots erupted, I thought there was never going to be a better time to tell the story of Hackney youth”, she says. “It made me feel all the years I had struggled to raise money was worth it and what I was doing was important.”

She chose to make a film about two brothers because she wanted it to be about a sibling relationship.

“It’s a coming of age story and a love story between two brothers. It’s about having the courage to be different – to be yourself”, she says.

“It also looks at what do you do when your hero turns out to be human. There’s that point when you idolise someone and realise they are just people.”

The brothers are of Egyptian origin. As well as wanting to humanise gang members, Sally was also keen to humanise Arabs. “I’m interested in the underdog. I struggle to think of memorable Arab characters in Western cinema. That was my ambition, to have three-dimensional Arab characters and to make a non-terrorist film.”

Sally is half-Welsh and half-Egyptian, and lived in Cairo until she was 16. She studied Arabic language and Middle Eastern politics at Durham University, before going to work in TV and film.

When asked whether she feels there is growing diversity within British film, she is unsure.

“Sadly, I don’t feel so optimistic, especially with the cuts. It’s very hard to make an independent film. There does not seem to be the diversity of voices and stories.”

Although the film is low-budget, Sally obtained funding from private investors both here and in Egypt.

She confesses the fact that the film’s setting made it difficult. “People reacted negatively to it being set on a council estate”, she said. “They thought it was going to be dark and depressing.”

However, she was keen to show this was not the case. “I did not want to portray Hackney in a grim depressing way as Hackney is not like that.

“I know that there are trees, sunshine and children playing. When I go out for a walk on a nice sunny day I’m happy to live there.”