Iconic gay arab characters are a rare find in cinema today, but filmmaker Sally El Hosaini aims to change that with her award-winning debut feature, My Brother the Devil.
The film tells the story of Mo (Fady Elsayed), a high school student from a traditional Arab family, and his older, charismatic brother Rashid (James Floyd), the leader of a notorious east London street gang.
Though Mo idolizes his brother and the gang lifestyle, Rashid wants his younger sibling to steer clear of a dead-end life on the streets and instead focus on his studies. Desiring to escape the gangland life himself, Rashid accepts a job offer from a kind photographer named Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui) and the two form a relationship that quickly escalates from friendly to physical. When Rashid begins to distance himself from his friends and family to keep his love affair a secret, Mo seizes the opportunity to fill his brother's shoes and begins going on drug runs for the gang behind Rashid's back.
My Brother the Devil is a fresh take on the familiar coming-of-age tale that examines the depth of prejudices, family loyalty, and what it means to be a man.
While the movie currently rolls out across cities in the U.S., El Hosaini spoke about her inspiration for the film.
What inspired you to tell the story that became My Brother the Devil?
Because I'm half Egyptian, I really wanted to put heroes on screen who were Arab, weren't terrorists, and were three-dimensional characters. Arabs really don't have any sort of iconic representation in cinema, so that was one of the things I really wanted to do. But the storyline came from a mix of my own experiences and the time I spent researching the many boys who inspired the movie. During my research I got to know a lot of gang members in London and see this macho culture up close. That's when I began to construct this narrative of someone exploring their sexuality within this alpha male, homophobic environment.
Why did you feel you needed to include the exploration of sexuality within a story about what it means to be a man?
It allowed me to make a film about prejudice as a lager concept. Because it's seen through the eyes of Mo as well as Rashid, the journey they both go on makes it much more than a coming-out story. To me, the more interesting part of the story was whether or not family could overcome prejudice that was so entrenched.
Above: James Floyd and Fady Elsayed in My Brother the Devil.
Was it important for you to avoid including stereotypes often associated with gay men?
Absolutely, because it was important to me that these characters be as real as possible. So in terms of developing the character Sayyid, the person Rashid ends up with, it made sense to have him be someone who challenged Rashid. If Sayyid had been a different kind of person, it may never have happened between them. It was more of a challenge for Rashid to meet a homosexual man who was Arab, was fine with his sexuality, and was still, in Rashid's eyes, a masculine guy. Plus I was excited to have an Arab gay character who didn't have a problem with his sexuality.
The London riots broke out when you began filming. What effect did that have on the production?
The day we were testing the camera for the first time was the day the riots broke out in Hackney. When that kicked off right in front of us it brought to life for me the need for understanding why there's a lot of disenfranchised youth in the U.K. I think any film that attempts to represent their lives in an honest way is important because it helps others to understand them rather than stereotyping them.
What's been the most rewarding part of telling this story?
There have been a few, but one of the best was listening to a person who'd seen the film tell me his real life was very close to the character of Rashid and it meant a lot to see his experiences depicted in the film. I was touched to have him share that with me. I realized we'd made something that resonated with people and made them think and that made me feel like it was worth going there.