Starring James Floyd, Fady Elsayed, Anthony Welsh, Amira Ghazalla, Nasser Memarzia, Aymen Hamdouchi, Arnold Oceng, Saïd Taghmaoui, Shyam Kelly, McKell David, Leemore Marrett Jr.
Directed by Sally El Hosaini
My Brother the Devil tells the story of a family of Egyptian immigrants who live in the London Borough of Hackney. Elder brother Rashid (James Floyd) is involved in the local street gang, selling drugs and whatever else it takes to make fast cash. His younger brother, Mo (Fady Elsayed), looks up to him and wants to be just like him. Rash does his best to protect Mo from his “job,” but the allure is too strong for him to completely quash the idea in Mo’s mind. So Rash reluctantly asks Mo to perform a quick pick-up for him, but this goes sour when Mo runs into some members from a rival gang, setting in motion the plot’s cascading dominoes that fall until the film’s finale.
There have been many films with this kind of plots, but the plot isn’t what I found compelling about My Brother the Devil. The plot is everything it needs to be, but it’s pushed forward by its characters and how their actions, thoughts and desires inform their actions. It is this quality that makes My Brother the Devil great, as the characters constantly challenged me and had me thinking. There isn’t a lot of communication between the brothers, and this leads to a lot of repressed emotion and frustration for both characters. This emotion is bubbling under the surface of the entire film, and this takes what could easily be a rote, seen-it-all-before film and turns it into something special.
What my mind turned to the most while watching was the title: My Brother the Devil. There’s no clear reference in the film to the title, or to which brother it refers to. As the film started I felt connected with Mo. I looked at the characters as an outsider, judging Rashid as “the devil brother” for his involvement in illegal activities and influencing an otherwise good kid to go down a negative path. As the film continues, I started to question this stance, and this questioning continued until well into the film.
After flip-flopping in my mind a few times, I decided that “the devil” of the title was referencing both brothers. Rashid is the obvious devil, but Mo’s youth and naivety causes him to do some harsh, ill-advised things that are definitely on the devilish side of the line. They both have some work to do if they want to rise above this neighborhood. Rash has been a gang member for a while now, and he’s under pressure to get a real job and move on with his life. Rash sees that his future is empty inside the gang, but Mo is still idealistic and holds on to the romantic ideal that his brother is the hard-ass of the neighborhood. And as young teenagers know everything there is to know, there’s little hope of making him understand the reality. In this neighborhood, the gang life is the only future there needs to be for a kid like him. Or so he thinks, anyway.
The brother in the title could also reference the brotherly bonds of the gang. All the members call each other “bruv” (short for brother), and like the unbreakable bonds of family, once you’re in the gang there’s no getting out. All the bruvs are great friends and act like true brothers, that is, until the fateful day when one of them decides the life isn’t all it’s hyped to be. This is not a profound or unique sentiment in film, for sure, but it is handled here exceptionally well. The gang members never feel like cut-out characters from previous genre entries; they feel rich, vibrant and like real people with lives and concerns of their own. The film achieves this in part through its great script, but perhaps more so from its subtle approach to style that allows the viewer into the neighborhood as if they were a new resident.
My Brother the Devil is director Sally El Hosaini’s first feature film, and it is an incredibly strong debut. The film has something of a cinema vérité style that lends it a lot of credibility and realism. At the same time, it’s slickly produced and professional. El Hosaini has an eye for composition and creates striking images to fill the screen throughout the film. I was also quite taken with her use of focus, actively changing focus throughout shots to highlight different items in the frame. Quick rack focus is something often seen in film, but the kind of slow, methodical focusing done here is visually unique and interesting.
My Brother the Devil is a film that isn’t groundbreaking in its story, but it offers a glimpse into a world that feels fresh and vibrant. In today’s world where mainstream film feels so whitewashed and safe, films like My Brother the Devil showcase culture, sexuality and crime in meaningful, affecting ways. My Brother the Devil was originally released in 2012, but has just recently — Sept 2013 — received a US DVD release so the film is now widely available. Highly recommended.
Disclosure: I was provided with access to a review screener of the film.