Sally El Hosaini is a feature film writer / director. Her acclaimed debut feature, My Brother The Devil, picked up major prizes at Sundance, Berlin and London Film Festivals. It screened at over 40 international festivals, winning 12 awards, 17 nominations and an honourable mention. The film was released theatrically in the UK, US, Canada and Europe. As writer / director of the film, Sally won Best Screenplay at the 2013 Writer’s Guild of Great Britain Awards, the Most Promising Newcomer Award at the 2013 Evening Standard Film Awards, Best Newcomer at the 2012 BFI London Film Festival and the UK New Talent Award at the British Women in Film and Television Awards 2012. She’s an alumni of the Sundance Institutes Screenwriters and Directors Labs.
Sally has been profiled by The Guardian, Screen International as a “Star of Tomorrow”, BBC America, IndieWire and Variety who featured her as one of their “Brits to Watch”. She was one of fifteen female directors selected for BAFTA’s 2017-18 Elevate programme and was subsequently invited to sit on BAFTA’s Film Committee. She was also one of eight directors chosen for NBC Universal’s Directors Fellowship 2017. Recently she directed Danny Boyle’s TV series Babylon for Channel 4 / Sundance TV.
Sally is currently working on her second feature film, Jones, which she developed with the assistance of Sundance FilmTwo and a San Francisco Film Society / Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant. The film is being produced by Mike Goodridge (Groovy Pictures) and Christine Vachon (Killer Films). She’s also developing two other feature projects, Cowboys of Dreamland with Camilla Bray (Rosetta Productions) and the BFI, and FunnyGirl with FilmWave and Film4. Sally is represented in the UK by Sayle Screen and in the United States by Anonymous Content.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
My ‘eureka’ moment came late one evening as I struggled to understand some complicated Arabic grammar. I was eighteen and at Durham University. And although I wanted to speak better Arabic and found Middle East politics interesting, I realised, with a sinking heart, that I’d picked the wrong course. I asked myself, ‘what do I really want to do with my life?’
The thing I loved, more than anything in the world, was stories. I had written poetry and short stories from a young age. Deep in my heart I knew that I was a storyteller. I grew up in Cairo, Egypt until I was sixteen. In overpopulated Cairo, lives overlap and intertwine like nowhere else. And the oral tradition is very strong – Egyptians like to talk. It was through being surrounded by natural storytellers, stories and through writing that I made sense of my emotions and understood the world around me. My other passion was street photography. At fourteen I inherited my father’s old SLR camera and began developing my own black and white photographs. I was fascinated by the concept of immortalising a moment in time and the distillation, how a story is told through a single image. And finally, I was a people person. My happiest memories were when I worked with a group of people towards a common goal. So, it was a simple equation… stories + images + people = film! A lightbulb switched on in my head as I realised that filmmaking was the synthesis of everything I loved.
Until that moment, being a filmmaker had never occurred to me. I didn’t even know it was an option. I loved films, but didn’t everybody? I certainly didn’t know anybody who had made one or worked in the industry. It was very far away from my daily reality. And my university didn’t have a film course that I could transfer to. I phoned my brother and told him that I was going to drop out of uni to pursue filmmaking. He, very sensibly, convinced me to complete my course. In those days there were grants, but you could only have one. If I dropped out, I wouldn’t be able to afford university again. He reassured me that filmmaking would always be there. That if I really had my heart set on it, then nothing would stop me doing it. He also advised me to identify the filmmakers I most admired. To study what they did. To learn from them. So, I continued my studies and became one of my local video shop’s (Blockbusters) most loyal customers.
In hindsight, studying something else, whilst knowing that I really wanted to make films was a valuable experience. It gave me a real hunger and determination to get into film. I was motivated to take responsibility for my own learning since nobody was going to give it to me. But most importantly it taught me patience. And made me really grateful and appreciative for every opportunity, no matter how small.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
After university I worked as a care assistant for the elderly and also as a waitress while I figured out how I was going to get into film. I also worked for Amnesty International. During this time I started to write some scripts, but they didn’t really go anywhere as I didn’t know anyone else who wanted to make films. Then I learned about an apprenticeship that the late British theatre director, John Sichel, had set up on a converted pig farm in North Yorkshire. You would live on the farm and learn ‘on the job’ skills by making corporate videos and putting on plays locally etc… I made contact and moved to North Yorkshire a few months later. It was here, with the other trainees, that I made my first short films. In fact it was where I met and first worked with Iain Kitching, the editor who I still work with today. Being surrounded by others who had the same aspirations and passions was very exciting.
Then I moved to London to try to find an entry level job in film. But without contacts I struggled. I was working in a Harvester and resorted to some pretty desperate ideas like accosting Ken Loach with my CV after a Q&A. He was actually lovely about it. But I soon realised that the only way to get work was to make myself unique, to exploit my USP. I spoke Arabic. So I used my language skills to get my first job in the industry – working on Middle East documentaries for television. I did that for a few years and travelled to some fascinating places. In many ways the docs I worked on were my film school.
But filmmaking is all about making windows where there are walls. When I was working in docs, I knew that I really wanted to be working in fiction, on feature films. But I was told by my colleagues that it was very hard and almost impossible to cross over. That it was rarely done. That I should just be grateful that I was in docs – and not news! Hearing these attitudes only made me more determined to prove them wrong and to follow my dreams. So, all the while I worked, I was looking for any kind of route or way in to fiction.
I eventually got my first break in film working in the production office of an independent feature by tracking down the phone number of the director. I called him up out of the blue. My opening line was, “you don’t know me, but I think you should.” He’s a friend now and we laugh about that. But it worked and he gave me my first film job.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
The biggest obstacles are the doubts in your own head. Not studying directing at a conventional film school meant that I thought I must know less than others around me. So it took me about 10 years of working various jobs in the industry before I had the confidence to write and direct my own films. The truth is, I could have made my own films sooner. Instead, I worked for others until I reached the point where the pain of not making my own films was greater than the pain of just getting on and doing it.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
I’ve learned what I know on the job and am still learning… Working in various jobs in film and television has helped me develop the discipline and focus required to turn creative dreams into reality. Muhammad Ali once said, “Champions have to have last minute stamina. They have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.” It’s this resilience that working my way up has taught me.
Every film requires a slightly different creative process, in the same way that I direct every actor differently. I like to operate from a place of intuition and am learning to trust it more and more. I want to tell those starting out on their directing journey that there is no one way or right way to do the job. It’s about finding the way that works best for the specific film or project. But always push yourself out of your comfort zone. Dare to be personal. Dare to be vulnerable.
How did you get your first break?
Nobody gave me my first directing break. I’ve had to create my own directing opportunities by first writing shorts and then after that writing features. I’ve also had to develop a keen ‘producer chip’ in my brain to steer and push projects into existence. It was only after I had completed my first feature, My Brother The Devil, and won a few awards, that I was offered directing work by the industry.
TV Credits: Babylon (2014).
Film Credits: The Fifth Bowl (2008), Henna Night (2009), My Brother The Devil (2012) The Swimmers (2021).
Photograph: Nick Wall