‘I’m not afraid of going into the dark spaces of humanity’
Director Dina Amer’s debut feature film has won 30 awards and uncovered the life of a French woman falsely labelled as Europe’s first female suicide bomber
You Resemble Me was never meant to be Dina Amer’s debut feature film, but it was one she feels she was destined to make. “The story chose me,” the Egyptian-American director explained. “It held me by my neck.”
The movie is based on the real-life figure of Hasna Aït Boulahcen, the 26-year-old woman who was falsely labelled as Europe’s first female suicide bomber after the Paris terror attacks of November 2015, in which 130 people were killed and more than 350 injured. Amer, a former news reporter for the New York Times and CNN, covered the atrocities, which were coordinated by Islamic State sympathisers and carried out across a number of venues, including the Bataclan nightclub.
Amer had just dropped out of a masters degree course in filmmaking at New York University to research a film project inspired by the deadly attack on the Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which had taken place in January that year. “I was at a crossroads: either I hustle for tuition fees or I hustle to make the film,” she said. “I chose the latter and don’t regret it.”
It was while covering the events of 13 November that Amer first heard Boulahcen’s name. French prosecutors revealed on 18 November that she was one of three people killed when a suicide vest was detonated in a third-floor flat during a police raid in a Paris suburb targeting the IS attackers.
While the media portrayed Boulahcen as a calculating suicide bomber, the young woman had lived a traumatised life since birth. Boulahcen had been placed with foster parents from the age of eight until she was 15. She felt cast aside by society and was the perfect target for radicalisation. She had been groomed by her cousin over Facebook into sympathising with extremist IS ideology. At the time of the raid that ended her life, she was reportedly heard screaming for police to come to her aid: “Please help! Let me jump! I want to leave!”
In the weeks and months after the attacks, the news cycle moved on and media interest in the Paris attacks subsided. Amer, however, remained determined to correct the narrative of Boulahcen’s life and death. She met Boulahcen’s family and recorded 360 hours of interview footage to gain a better understanding of her subject. “I got obsessed with the story,” she said.
Amer was the only journalist Boulahcen’s mother would meet, because she looked like her daughter. While that comment inspired the film’s title, Amer began to realise that they had much more in common. “I went into this film with a lot of similar wounds to Hasna,” said Amer. “I have dissociation, trauma, the ability to leave myself sometimes to try to find human connection and that fragility.”
That psychological urge to disconnect is reflected in You Resemble Me, a fictionalised account of Boulahcen’s life from childhood to adulthood. Amer emphasises Boulahcen’s fractured existence by using multiple actresses — Mouna Soualem, Sabrina Ouazani and herself — to represent her life.
“The three Hasnas was a dangerous choice because it’s challenging audiences,” Amer said. “I’m gonna throw this curveball to have three different actresses and have you witness her shapeshift. It’s not something ambitious just for the sake of being clever or provocative. It’s coming from something within that I wanted to express about the human condition.”
It was a risky creative move and not everyone was on board. “I had some people I respect who advised against it,” said Amer, who was able to call on the support and advice of her executive producers, including her former NYU professor Spike Lee, Spike Jonze and Alma Har’el.
“When Spike Lee or Spike Jonze tells you something, you should listen, but it got to a point where I was like, ‘Thank you so much for your feedback, but I have to listen to my instinct even if I’m wrong,’ because something inside me is driven to see that on the screen. It represents something within myself as a woman that is important for me.”
Taking charge of her artistic vision has come at a financial cost. At one point Amer had what she describes as a “million-dollar deal” with Amazon to make You Resemble Me and a companion film, but walked away to preserve her creative control.
“I had a huge budget, I put together my dream team and in the final hour they wanted me to do re-enactments instead of full-fledged fiction,” she explained.
For the next few months, Amer slept on her sister’s couch and rebuilt the film with independent financing. She also enlisted the help of her brother Karim, a documentary maker known for the Emmy award-winning The Square and the HBO documentary series The Vow.
The result of her six-year effort is an empathetic film that premiered at the Venice Film Festival and has received critical acclaim at 70 festivals, winning 30 awards across the globe. Yet despite the plaudits, Amer struggled to find a distributor willing to work with her and the film was self-distributed in the US on its release last year. “I never could have imagined that there would be this systemic fear of the film subject,” she said. “We got all these great reviews.”
While there is no dearth of films and TV series that focus on Muslims and their ties to terrorism, You Resemble Me is a nuanced, fictionalised account of Boulahcen’s life which steers clear of the usual Hollywood stereotypes. The biographical drama is part of a new wave of recently released films that have helped pave the way for more complex Muslim characters, including The Mauritanian and Copilot.
The experience of making You Resemble Me hasn’t stopped Amer from tackling difficult subject matter from her own perspective. Her next project, Cane & Abel, is a gritty social thriller set in the US but inspired by a viral video of a confrontation between a terrorist behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks and a police officer.
“I’m not afraid of going into the dark spaces of humanity and trying to bring a candle there,” said Amer. “I want to direct and create something that expresses how I see the world.”
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