by Gary M. Kramer -
SGN A&E Writer
MY BROTHER THE DEVIL
My Brother the Devil is a stunning film about two Egyptian siblings living in London. Devilishly handsome Rashid (James Floyd), involved in a drug-dealing gang, tries to keep his devil-may-care younger brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) out of harm's way. However, when Rashid decides he wants out of the drug-gang culture, he takes a job offered by photographer Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui) and eventually, unexpectedly, becomes romantically involved with him. Meanwhile, Mo gets involved in the drug gang, much to Rashid's chagrin.
Writer/director Sally El Hosaini deftly intertwines familiar stories of gang war, Arab tradition and culture in England, and pansexuality. This stylish drama benefits from its authenticity and the palpable bond between the brothers. In separate Skype conversations, SGN spoke with El Hosaini and Floyd about their outstanding film.
EXPOSING A HIDDEN WORLD
From London, El Hosaini talked about the impetus to make a film about ethnicity, masculinity, and sexuality. 'I'm half-Egyptian, which is why the brothers are half-Egyptian,' she said. My instinct was to make heroes out of people who don't already have an iconic representation in cinema - or any representation.'
She further explained that My Brother the Devil is dedicated to her own late brother Sherif, adding, 'but it's not autobiographical in any way.'
Instead, El Hosaini did years of research on interracial gangs in London, learning the street language and the male codes of behavior. 'I thought about what it means to be a man, and I wanted to see how someone explores their sexuality within that doubly homophobic environment - the implicit one in the family, and [explicitly] in the urban gang culture,' she indicated. 'I could relate to the masks that they wear, and as mixed-race, I can understand the contradictory or opposing sides of something. I was fascinated by how they navigated these worlds, and how they switched so readily.'
She cited an example of this duality in a scene when Rashid is dancing with his lover Sayyid, only to transform into a different persona entirely when he gets a call from a drug contact.
WHAT IS A MAN?
From Los Angeles, Floyd also addressed the depiction of masculinity in the film. 'Most of the film is about what it means to be a man. These guys put a mountain of pressure on themselves to be men,' he observed. 'They are extremely homophobic, and yet constantly flirting with one another. All men, and constantly hugging around the neck, touching heads.'
Floyd sees My Brother the Devil being about more than just masculinity, however. 'I think it's a love story between two brothers. It touches on something I find fascinating: When you're young, your older brother is God in your eyes. And then you find out that he's an imperfect human - that's the interesting thing - that Mo finds that Rashid is the worst kind of imperfect in his eyes because he's Gay.'
Significantly, My Brother the Devil is not a coming-out film. Rashid's sexuality is never really discussed. Floyd acknowledged, 'Rashid is basically confused like a lot of 19-year-olds. He's exploring himself and that is why he never really comes out.'
El Hosaini echoed this point. 'There was a huge focus on 'Is Rashid Gay or Bi?' I can't answer that. He doesn't know by the end of the film. If the character doesn't know ... it's more realistic. I wish there weren't all these boxes and labels people try to put people in. That's my viewpoint - pansexual.'
Instead, the filmmaker asserted that she concentrated on making a film about a Gay Arab gangster and homophobia 'where the blood ties are, and where they are stronger than prejudice.'
A HARD ROLE TO FILL
The actor is amazed that he was cast in a key role. He explained, 'I'm the opposite of Rashid. My family is not religious or as poor as Rashid's family. And I'm not Gay. Sally wanted to do the whole City of God thing and cast the real guys. All those guys were so homophobic, though - they couldn't play Rashid. She was forced into casting a professional actor. If it wasn't for the homophobia in the streets, I wouldn't be in the film!'
To prepare for the role, Floyd admitted he 'did everything Rashid would do: boxing, hanging with gangs, eating certain foods, staying up so late - everything but deal drugs and have sex with Saïd Taghmaoui.'
Rashid's struggle with his sexuality is only one facet of My Brother the Devil. The film is mostly an emotional story that depicts the gang life of the two teenage siblings.
El Hosaini emphasized why the violence, which is very vivid in the film, is so prominent, 'I wanted it to be realistic and not sensationalized. My only concern was not to glamorize it.' She continued, 'What shocked me is how it comes out of nothing - there is not this gradual escalation. There is extreme boredom, and they wait for something to happen. The impact of that [violence] they deal with the rest of their lives. That interested me.'
In one critical scene, the filmmaker creates a moment of calm and stillness to show what she called 'that moment when their masks dropped and they are children and they are scared.'
Floyd agreed. 'The violence is very realistic, because that's how it goes down. It's a naturalistic film, and Sally wanted to tell the truth of the 'postcode' gangs [so-called because they demarcate themselves by postal codes]. There have been a lot of films set in this world - the 'urban' film genre. Most of them are condescending, unrealistic, and glamorize the violence, sex, and drugs. The violence here had to make you flinch. It happens a lot in these areas of London.'
POETRY AND REALISM
El Hosaini emphasized that the realism was of the utmost importance to the film's creation - and to its success. 'I didn't want to make a phony film that has Arab characters who don't come across as authentic. There are a lot of films like that in the U.K. To be 100% authentic was important to me.'
She concluded, 'But it is a fiction, written in realism - but you can't ignore the poetry of that. It's abstract. I used to write poetry as a teen, and that really affects film.' Poetry, she said, is a similar discipline to filmmaking - 'rhythm, images, and how you boil things down to the one right word. In film there are images that are metaphors, and layers. My film was an emotional story, and that was the heart of it - the emotion between these two brothers, and that allows a space for the psychological aspects of the story.'
In My Brother the Devil all these elements - psychology, family, violence, and sexuality - resonate strongly.
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