The Egyptian-American director’s first feature, You Resemble Me, is a bold exploration of muslim womanhood and religious radicalisation – and it very nearly didn’t get made
It began with a fake headline. In November 2015, a few days after the Bataclan attacks in Paris, a radicalised 26-year-old woman, Hasna Aït Boulahcen, was killed in an explosion at a flat in Saint-Denis during a police raid. News reports immediately labelled Hasna “Europe’s first suicide bomber”; accompanied by photos, a New York Post story was titled “Skanky Suicide Bomber Used to be a Selfie-Taking Party Animal”.
Later, a video showed Hasna screaming for help (“Let me jump! I want to leave!”) moments before the blast, revealing it was detonated by someone else. A strange situation became even stranger: who was the real Hasna? And how did she end up living with her cousin, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the organisers of the Paris atrocities?
At the time, Dina Amer was a New Yorker in Paris, reporting for VICE News. The Egyptian-American director’s contribution to one of many untrue descriptions of Hasna as a suicide bomber (multiple BBC news reports still haven’t been corrected) haunted her, launching a seven-year obsession that culminated with You Resemble Me, a beguiling, experimental sort-of-biopic that uses fiction to make sense of reality.
“This is not a film about terrorism,” Amer tells me over Zoom from LA in late January. “I was possessed by the story of Hasna because I saw, at the core, there was a film about a woman who was really struggling with her sense of self, and was code-switching to feel human connection. That’s something I could relate to: the fragility of being in that dissociative state within yourself… It’s just devastating that her desire [to reinvent herself] was manipulated by forces that wanted to use her as a pawn in this greater political context.”
When You Resemble Me was accepted by the Venice Film Festival, programmers informed the journalist-turned-filmmaker that the decision was highly contested. “I was shocked!” Amer says. “There’s so much space to explore the human complexity of a villainous white man, whether it’s Ted Bundy or the Jeffrey Dahmer show on Netflix. But because Hasna is a woman who’s brown, Muslim, and caught up in that headline, there’s red tape all over it. You couldn’t dare humanise her. You have to be like, ‘Well, she’s a terrorist. End of story.’ And what’s even more fucked up is that she didn’t set off the bomb! It’s a fake headline!”
Eschewing an obvious, less adventurous documentary format, You Resemble Me launches as a slice-of-life, coming-of-age tale with Hasna as a child causing mischief in the neighbourhood with her twin sister (depicted by siblings Lorenza and Ilonna Grimaudo). With an opening act in the vein of The 400 Blows, Amer’s screenplay, cowritten with Omar Mullick, thus maximises the shock of Hasna’s eventual radicalisation.
After she’s spotted stealing food, young Hasna is separated from her sister and stuck in a foster home. She never truly recovers. As an adult sex worker played by Mouna Soualem, Hasna is both estranged from her family and deeply lonely – she’s even rejected by the French Army. Through the internet and a cousin, Hasna then discovers ISIS and its promise that paradise is “better than your greatest orgasm”. In a visualisation of Hasna’s split personalities, she morphs into different women via deepfake technology, at one point adopting the face of Amer herself.
“I wanted to create something hypnotic that would make the audience lean in and be like, ‘Is that her?’” Amer explains. “The deepfake created that effect of how somebody can leave their body and, in a subtle but distinct way, become somebody else in front of you. Even their face changes.”
In a further daring move, You Resemble Me switches in its final stages to a full-on documentary with real-life interviews. Amer’s reasoning was that once the viewer witnesses Hasna’s actual family, it’d be impossible to cut back to fiction. “Even if you have Meryl Streep playing the mother, it doesn’t matter,” Amer says. “You’ve met the real mother, and her truth trumps it.”
In her more traditional journalism days, Amer reported for the likes of the New York Times, CNN, and PBS. In 2013, she was a producer on The Square, an Oscar-nominated documentary about the Egyptian Revolution, and for VICE’s Black Market: Dispatches she investigated human trafficking in Syria. After pitching You Resemble Me, Amer was initially offered a multimillion deal from a “major studio”.
“At the final hour, the studio wanted me to do re-enactments instead of fully fledged fiction,” Amer sighs. “They got cold feet about fully humanising Hasna through narrative. They wanted to contractually define how much fiction was in it. For me, that was unacceptable… I walked away from the deal. I lost all the money. I lost my team. I moved in with my sister and slept on her couch.”
‘There’s so much space to explore the human complexity of a villainous white man, whether it’s Ted Bundy or the Jeffrey Dahmer show on Netflix. But because Hasna is a woman who’s brown, Muslim, and caught up in that headline, there’s red tape all over it. You couldn’t dare humanise her’ – Dina Amer
Even so, Amer continued to research the topic, tracking down everyone who knew Hasna when she was alive. After 360 hours of interviews, Amer wrote a script, reassembled a new team (“people who had never made a film before but were passionate,” she says), and shot You Resemble Me in two-and-a-half weeks on a minimal budget. For its release, the film boasts starry executive producers: Alma Har’el, Spike Jonze, Riz Ahmed, and Spike Lee.
“As artists, they understand what it’s like to be ‘the other’, whether they’re Jewish, a woman, Muslim, or Black,” Amer observes. “Alma is known for genre-bending storytelling. Spike Jonze takes wild risks creatively. Riz is a profound storyteller… Spike Lee’s always telling narratives that are pointing to deep racism and inequality, and how they breed violence. Do the Right Thing is one of my favourite films of all time.”
She continues, “My intention for this film was to bring healing to this collective wound – this senseless violence that’s committed in the name of so-called Islam – and to show that, at the heart of it, these individuals were foot soldiers who were deeply lost, broken, and desperate to reinvent themselves; desperate for human connection, home, love, and consideration. When those basic human needs aren’t given to someone, that individual can grab our attention in the worst possible way, and make us notice them.”
Amer is already hard at work on her next feature, Cain and Abel. In a lengthy rundown that she later asks to be retracted from the interview, she describes to me the genre-morphing plot and namechecks a few inspirations from Pennies to Heaven to Dancer in the Dark. Her monologue elicits numerous “oh my God” remarks from me. After deciding how much to tease in print of Cain and Abel, she suggests, “Maybe just say it’s a musical.”
She adds, “It’s very important to consistently challenge myself as an artist, and to find, for better or worse, new ideas that I’m intrigued by, but also scare me, because I don’t have all the answers. It’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to bring truth to the screen in a way that’s not been told before… I’m not just putting on a hat for there to be a hat, like, ‘Oh, it’s a musical.’ I really want it to be earned. The soul of [Cain and Abel], the deepest issue that the characters are plagued by, require a fucking song.”
You Resemble Me is out in UK cinemas and on digital from February 3. For more information and details of Q&A screenings, visit: www.modernfilms.com/youresembleme