Fady Elsayed and James Lloyd play two brothers in Sally El Hosaini’s debut feature
My Brother The Devil
Written and directed by Sally El Hosaini
Starring: Nasser Memarzia, James Lloyd, Fady Elsayed, Said Taghmaoui, Letitia Wright
Run Time: 111 minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated
The buzz about a first time film director can be extreme. Welles’ “Citizen Kane” in 1941, Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, and now, in 2013, Sally El Housani’s “My Brother The Devil,” which has charmed its way through the festival circuit. But buzz, in a society that runs on buzz, can make it hard to see the forest for the trees. Does El Housani’s freshman effort deserve all the attention and all the awards it’s been raking in? It’s certainly visually accomplished, but there’s precious little meat on its bones, like a PBS Frontline documentary that pretends to be the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but has made its politically correct mind up from the get go.
The subject matter is interesting. A family of Egyptian immigrants living in a huge apartment building in East London’s racially mixed and multi-ethnic Hackney district struggles to make ends meet. The bus driver father Abdul-Aziz (Nasser Memarzia), has solid working class values, while his two teenaged sons, Rashid (James Lloyd) and younger brother Mo (Fady Elsayed), like youths everywhere, are looking for themselves. The impulsive Rash, who is idolized by Mo, “finds himself” by leading a dope-selling gang. Complications ensue when Rash’s best friend Izzi (Anthony Welish), who wants out of the gang, is stabbed to death by a rival member outside a convenience store at night.
After a sharp, focused first act the picture loses steam, point, and credibility especially when El Hosaini introduces the French Moroccan gay photographer Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui) as Rash’s employer and subsequent lover, apparently just to show how savagely homophobic Arabs are even when they live in the “enlightened” West. The director further undermines her picture by including scenes that seem to make the same points over and over, like those in the crack house, and the ones between Mo and his observant Muslim friend Aisha (Letitia Wright), which don’t develop in interesting ways. It’s astounding to think that El Hosaini worked on the script for five years and came up with this. Gertrude Stein was right when she said that artists need praise, but a first class director, and especially a great one like George Stevens knew how much is enough, and a solid no-nonsense script is always the best foundation.
The cast however does wonders with what they’re given. Floyd and Elsayed give acutely sensitive performances, and Floyd’s turn has been accurately described as charismatic. The mostly hand-held cinematography by David Raedeker is expressive though sometimes intrusive. It’s like that old canard about leaving the opera house whistling the scenery. The subject has to have legs and if it doesn’t, everyone’s in trouble. The audience is only as sophisticated as the diet it gets, and with the general collapse of the storytelling art both here and abroad, one can hardly blame them for mistaking silver for gold.