Arab Gangs of London

KRAMER devilIS “My Brother the Devil” is a stunning film about two Egyptian siblings in London. Devilishly handsome Rashid (James Floyd), who is involved in a drug-dealing gang, tries to keep his devil-may-care younger brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) out of harm’s way. Rashid decides he wants out of the drug gang culture and takes a job with photographer Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui), eventually — and unexpectedly — becoming romantically involved with him. Meanwhile, Mo gets pulled into the gang, much to Rashid’s chagrin.

Writer and director Sally El Hosaini deftly intertwines stories of gang war, the bonds between brothers, Arab tradition and culture in England, and sexual exploration in a stylish drama notable for its authenticity. In separate Skype conversations, Gay City News spoke with El Hosaini and Floyd about this outstanding film.

From London, El Hosaini talked about her motivation in creating a film about ethnicity, masculinity, and sexuality.

In a world of violence and drugs, two brothers united by blood, divided by 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.”

Explaining that “My Brother the Devil” is dedicated to her late brother, Sherif, she added, “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 in the urban gang culture,” she explained. “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.”

This duality is seen when Rashid is dancing with his lover Sayyid, only to transform into a different person when he gets a call from a drug contact.

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,” he said. “These guys put a mountain of pressure on themselves to be men. They are extremely homophobic and yet constantly flirting with one another. All men, and constantly hugging around the neck, touching heads.”

Floyd asserted that “My Brother the Devil” is more than just an exploration of masculinity, however.

“I think it’s a love story between two brothers,” he said. “It touches on something I find fascinating: When you’re young, your older brother is a 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.

“Rashid is basically confused like a lot of 19-year-olds,” he said. “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?,’ she said. “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.”

The filmmaker said she was more interested in exploring the relationship between a queer Arab gangster and the homophobia around him —“where the blood ties are and where they are stronger than prejudice.”

Floyd is still amazed he was cast in the role of Rashid.

“I’m the opposite of Rashid,” he explained. “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 said he “did everything Rashid would do — boxing, hanging with gangs, eating certain foods, staying up so late.”

He added, “Everything but deal drugs and have sex with Saïd Taghmaoui.”

If Rashid’s struggle with his sexuality is a marquee theme in “My Brother the Devil,” a more subtle angle is the emotional story of two teenage siblings ensnared in gang life.

El Hosaini explained why violence, which is very vivid in the film, is so prominent.

“I wanted it to be realistic and not sensationalized,” she said. “My only concern was not to glamorize it.”

The abrupt way gang violence erupts is striking in El Hosaini’s view.

“What shocked me is how it comes out of nothing, there is not this gradual escalation,” she said. “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.”

El Hosaini created a moment of calm and stillness in the film 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,” he explained. “It’s a naturalistic film, and Sally wanted to tell the truth of the postcode gangs [organized around the equivalent of zip codes in multiethnic London]. 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.”

El Hosaini emphasized that the realism was of the utmost importance to the film’s creation — and success.

“I didn’t want to make a phony film that has Arab characters that don’t come across as authentic,” she said. “There are a lot of films like that in the UK. To be 100-percent authentic was important to me.”

Still, “My Brother the Devil” is a feature film, not a documentary.

“It is a fiction — written in realism — but you can’t ignore the poetry of that,” El Hosaini said. “It’s abstract. I used to write poetry as a teen — and that really affects film. It’s a similar discipline, poetry — 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 story.”

El Hosaini’s triumph is that in “My Brother the Devil,” all these elements — psychology, family, violence, and sexuality — resonate strongly and compellingly.

MY BROTHER THE DEVIL | Directed by Sally El Hosaini | Paladin Pictures | Opens Mar. 22 | Landmark Sunshine Cinema | 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. |