Dina Amer’s Debut You Resemble Me Is a Wrenching, Immersive Drama of Identity

Movies Reviews Dina Amer
Dina Amer’s Debut You Resemble Me Is a Wrenching, Immersive Drama of Identity

“Am I Muslim? Am I French? Am I crazy?”

In her directorial debut, award-winning journalist-turned-filmmaker Dina Amer is trying something different. A rigorously and investigatively sourced biopic embedded with a face-to-face documentary short, You Resemble Me recounts a history so contemporary it could blend into today’s headlines, so recent you could’ve been there for it—like Amer was.

The film opens on Hasna Aït Boulahcen, a young French-Arab girl in Saint-Denis on the outskirts of Paris, questioning her place in the world before concluding she should throw herself off a balcony. “Maybe then they would pay attention to me.” It ends much worse, the same little girl growing up to be wholly, societally disregarded before getting seduced into jihadist radicalization and becoming collateral in a suicide bomber explosion she would be wrongly blamed for by mass media, “buried like a dog in an unmarked grave.”

On the ground reporting for Vice—five days after the string of November 2015 terrorist attacks that killed 130 people—Amer was in Saint-Denis the day the bomb went off mid-police-siege, Hasna inside. That means Amer was also among the original swath of reporters to falsely report Hasna as the first female suicide bomber, a story that momentarily took the world by storm. As it turned out, Hasna was there with her cousin, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a key player in the attacks, who persuaded her to join the extremist group, as the film shows, in the wake of deep desperation and brokenness not long before she died.

Amer, like other self-respecting journalists, corrected her report two days later after the police’s amendment that it was another man in the room who detonated the vest. But in 48 hours, the media had slandered Hasna post-mortem so salaciously that there was no coming back. The vile, exploitative coverage was enough to ruin her family’s life in the aftermath, bomber, bystander or victim.

Painted as the “cowgirl of the hood”—a wayward, contemptible drug-abuser-meets-sex worker-meets-terrorist—Hasna’s reputation fell prey to an onslaught of reports eager to dogpile on the easy (now-dead) target from one of many angles: Xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, religious blasphemy, cultural dishonor, the list goes on. Choose your motivation and there’s an army behind it. Tacking onto the shameful coverage, the media never properly identified her. Through photos, they popularized three versions of Hasna, only one of which was actually her. As Amer started to dig into Hasna’s story, her coverage trended in the opposite direction.

Soon, she was the only journalist Hasna’s mother would grant an interview. Six years, 360 hours of case interviews and an immeasurable amount of research later, Amer set the story straight in celluloid, debuting You Resemble Me at Venice 2021. Like in all great character studies steeped in history, Hasna was unearthed through research, but in this case, unlike most, it was proprietary research, stories that hadn’t been collected, much less told. Amer studied Hasna, her world and her family on such a granular level that she felt compelled to fill in the gaps, to answer the question: How and why does something like this happen?

You Resemble Me is a look at how one comes to be ostracized and radicalized, a bold attempt to humanize a terrorist—one caught in the crossfire of belief—by taking a step back to probe her motivations. How did she understand her actions through the lens of her battered existence? What did she think she was doing? What would we do in that situation? The questions transcend race and religion. As Amer points out, radicalization is “not just a Muslim problem. It’s a far right wing problem” that stretches across borders.

That said, Amer—an Egyptian-American woman born and raised in the U.S., recognized for her coverage of events ranging from the Arab Spring to the Syrian civil war—has a vested interest in exploring the particulars of Hasna’s identity. The perpetual inner turmoil of wrestling with aspects of your identity is universal—what isn’t is the immense cultural and geopolitical weight of Hasna’s position as a modern Muslim woman in the West; as Amer relates it to herself, one who has “to contend with the same mission of reconciling that identity of being Arab and Western and Muslim and liberal” in a world slow to integrate.

Amer effectively stylizes You Resemble Me to immerse viewers in the constant state of identity crisis that is Hasna’s day-to-day. Omar Mullick’s handheld camera is near-sentient, as aware of Hasna’s surroundings as she must be, always noticing Muslim women in a world that doesn’t welcome them. The moments aren’t colored with commentary but left to linger, like they do in real time. The camera shakes as violently and casually as one in a Lars von Trier film, channeling Hasna’s perennial anxiety. The soundscape is atmospheric, a gripping score with surprise needle drops, dissonant winds, deep drums and sharp sounds that keep you on edge.

One of Amer’s most interesting choices—pertaining to Hasna’s three media personas—is her decision to cast adult Hasna as three separate women (Mouna Soualem, Sabrina Ouazani and Amer herself), muddying her identity through a thematic reflection on the media’s mistakes and Hasna’s lifelong tendency to morph into someone else: “You don’t know all the women I’ve been.” It doesn’t happen often, and sometimes it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it affair, but it’s an impressive flourish, and one that keeps the capital question in focus: Who was Hasna Aït Boulahcen?

Amer doesn’t mince words about the awful effects of colonialism and how that can contribute to losing one’s identity. Within 30 seconds of the first shot, we’re embroiled in a historical montage so well-paced it could be from a prestige ‘90s Oscar-winner. The French national anthem plays over a blur of colonialist footage that ranges from horrific violence committed against people in the Middle East to an ad of a Black woman straightening her hair, a literal and thematic blend of fiction and nonfiction.

We see the ways in which colonialism quietly operates today most clearly in Hasna’s childhood, where we spend the first third of the film. Left to the street to steal for food by their mother, Hasna and Mariam (played by sisters Lorenza and Ilonna Grimaudo) are eventually collected by social services and ripped at the seams, placed in different foster families amid torrential protest. As if having the only one who sees and hears you pried from your grasp isn’t enough, they’re told it’s for their own good, that they’ll thank the agency down the line.

It isn’t long before Hasna’s new foster mom, the Karen of all Karens, is straightening Hasna’s curly hair, guilting her into eating roast pork at the dinner table (she vomits), critiquing her posture, making her celebrate Christmas and using every moment to unleash a derogatory cotillion lesson, upholding colonial tradition. She doesn’t hear herself, much less the little French-Arab girl in front of her—the kind of rich white person that tells a recently fostered girl off the street who hasn’t eaten for days, “Think about all the kids who have nothing to eat.” She is both punchline and grim look at reality, the duality of modern colonial whiteness.

There’s a grand irony in Hasna growing up to join a terror cell, her motivation to stop her oppressors—to “help” and “protect people” as someone who was never protected—seemingly pointing to the opposite. But as Amer posits, it all makes devastating sense. Hasna wanted to be a cowgirl as a kid because she wanted to “kill the people that treat[ed] them badly.” Everyone ignores her, tries to take advantage of her, utterly dehumanizes her. And when we see how severe that is, it changes everything about how we empathize with her.

The most gut-wrenching example is found in a guy who offers to give her a ride home after she’s beaten and robbed in a bathroom. In the car in the immediate aftermath, he tries to force her to give him a blowjob, gets furious when she acts incredulous and says no, calls her a “whore,” acts offended that she’ll do it for money but not him, and tries to kick her out…so she does it to survive. (And he’s one of the nice ones.)

You Resemble Me starts as a coming-of-age story and mutates into the permanent falling apart of a woman invisible to society. Then, it redefines itself again as a documentary reckoning, a conversation with the real family members that catches a glimpse of the ruin her reputational damage left: Hasna’s real mother saying she wants nothing to do with her, her real brother saying it was supremely selfish, her real father absolving himself from the same lineage and Mariam caught in the horror of it all. It’s a brilliant turn that showcases the first-time filmmaker’s investigative background with bite.

Amer and company have taken rare steps to prove they’re serious about the film’s potential, mounting their own distribution efforts for the film after turning down disappointing offers at Venice. So far, it’s exceeded expectations, with executive producers like Spike Lee (her NYU professor), Spike Jonze (a collaborator at Vice), Riz Ahmed and Alma Har’el jumping on board, an independent distribution plan that’s landed it in over 50 cities nationwide, and real momentum. And Amer’s just getting started.

Director: Dina Amer
Writer: Dina Amer, Omar Mullick
Starring: Lorenza Grimaudo, Ilonna Grimaudo, Mouna Soualem, Sabrina Ouazani, Dina Amer, Alexandre Gonin, Grégoire Colin, Zinedine Soualem
Release Date: November 4, 2022

Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist and arts enthusiast by way of Austin, TX. He got his master’s studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him on Twitter @lou_kicks.

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