Filmmaker Sally El Hosaini Puts Spotlight on Jonestown Mass Murder-Suicide With Feature ‘Jones’ (EXCLUSIVE)

MARRAKECH – Director Sally El Hosaini, whose Working Title-produced “The Swimmers” opened the Toronto Film Festival, is turning her attention to one of the biggest mass murder-suicide stories in history with her forthcoming project “Jones.”

The Welsh-Egyptian director, who recently signed with CAA, told Variety at the Marrakech Film Festival that she began working on the film before making her current feature, “The Swimmers,” but is now rebooting the project towards production. “The Swimmers” is playing at the Marrakech International Film Festival (November 11-19, 2022) this week.

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El Hosaini is casting new light on the story which, she said, has been misunderstood. She has acquired the life rights from Jim Jones’ surviving son, Stephan Jones, she said.

“It’s a very misunderstood chapter in American history,” she says. “People label Jim Jones as a Charles Manson type of character from that era, but if the history had stopped in 1976/7, (before the mass murder-suicide in 1978, he would be remembered like Martin Luther King, Jr. in that he was anti-racist, pro-LGBT, super progressive and an athiest.

A lot of educated, clever, progressive people signed up to the People’s Temple, and then it all went wrong. It’s a film about narcissism, fake news, if you are only fed one narrative, what it can do to you, the ability of power to corrupt. It’s ultimately a Shakespearean family drama.”

The writer-director has received a couple of writing grants, including one from the San Francisco area. “It’s a Bay Area story because that’s where they are from and where a lot of survivors still live,” she said.

The film has been developed with the help of Sundance FilmTwo and a San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant.

El Hosaini is currently editing an indie film “Unicorns” that she has co-directed with actor James Krishna Floyd. He makes his directorial debut with the project. Floyd also wrote the script.

“It’s a love story of straight, single dad from Essex, played by Ben Hardy, that falls in love with a British-Indian drag queen that’s closeted.”

Trudie Styler and Celine Rattray’s Maven Screen Media and Philip Herd’s Chromatic Aberration co-financed and produced.

Meanwhile, “The Swimmers” tells the story of two female swimmers, Sara and Yusra Mardini that leave Syria as refugees, making a perilous journey, involving tugging a boat of refugees through the Mediterranean for three hours. Yusra Mardini competed on the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team (ROT) at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The Swimmers. (L to R) Nathalie Issa as Yusra Mardini, Manal Issa as Sara Mardini in The Swimmers. Cr. Laura Radford/Netflix © 2022
The Swimmers

Mardini’s story went global after the games, and in 2017 she was appointed as the youngest-ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency). In 2018, she released a book “Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph.”

Working Title produced for Netflix. The Swimmers” is also written by El Hosaini and co-written by Jack Thorne (“Help”).

Said  El Hosaini: “When I was first asked to do this, I thought: ‘Oh no. What’s it going to be about?’ It’s a bit reactive to the headlines, but as soon as I read the script and Googled the sisters, I said I have to do this.”

El Hosaini grew up in Egypt. “I could really relate to them. They are young, liberal Arabic women. They reminded me of my friends growing up, even though it was Cairo in the 1990s for me and Damascus, more recently, for them.”

The film sheds light on the plight of women and refugees in different ways.

“In order to be a swimmer, in that part of the world, your family has to be okay with you wearing a swimsuit,” she said. “My three siblings were all swimmers. I spent a lot of time at swim meets. It’s what you want to do in hot countries. They reminded me of my friends.”

It’s also story of female empowerment. “I get sent a lot of scripts about young Arab women but they all have a victim narrative,” she added.  “It’s some kind of heavy, honor killing or goodness knows what traumatic storyline, but I saw in this sports movie narrative the ability for them to be winners.  I haven’t seen that – young, brown Arab women, a refugee girl winning and being happy.”

War changes everything.

“There’s also this hidden story that I found empowering,” she added. “War turns everything on its head. There’s no way they would have been allowed the freedom to make that journey, on their own, and to have made decisions about their lives, resulting in Yusra making it to the Olympics, and becoming a hero, as well, and deciding to go back to help people on Lesbos, if they hadn’t had the freedom. Because all of the religious and patriarchal structures in that society that encourage women to get married and have babies quickly, are destroyed and broken. I found that really empowering, a true female empowerment story, about following your dreams.”

She hopes the film will give audiences a different perspective on the refugee crisis.

“I think what the British government is saying and doing is disgusting,” she said. “I hope the film allows audiences to empathize, and to put a human face on this crisis, because people become dissociated seeing the news. It becomes a number. More empathy is needed to understand that these are people. Migration has been happening for centuries. We all have to know we are part of the story, and that it could be me. There should be safe passage for everyone.”

As well as CAA, El Hosaini is  represented by long-time agent Matthew Bates at Sayle Screen, and Anonymous Content.

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