Dina Amer, an Egyptian-American filmmaker and award-winning journalist, explores the roots of radicalization through a contemporary coming-of-age story in her bold feature debut “You Resemble Me,” which world premieres today at the Venice Film Festival.
“You Resemble Me” delivers a nuanced character study of Hasna Aït Boulahcen, the troubled young woman who became connected to the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and was erroneously believed to be Europe’s first female suicide bomber. Although she didn’t participate in the attacks, she died during a broad anti-terrorism raid in Saint-Denis alongside her cousin Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the ringleaders of the coordinated assaults which killed 130 people in the French capital, including 90 at the Bataclan theater.
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Fast-paced and dense, the movie chronicles the chaotic childhood of Aït Boulahcen in an underprivileged suburb of Paris where she lived with her younger sister, with whom she had a strong bond, as well as her dysfunctional mother and brother. After she ran away from home with her sister, the siblings were separated and placed them in different foster care homes. Growing up feeling lonely, alienated, eager to be loved and belong somewhere, Aït Boulahcen was eventually lured by her cousin into joining the terror cell after watching the sensationalized media reports of the mass shooting at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.
Executive produced by Spike Lee, Spike Jonze and Alma Har’el, the movie marks the first fiction work exploring the identity crisis, as well as the social roots and psychological struggle experienced by someone who was brought up in France and got involved, at least indirectly, in the attacks which caused a national trauma. The film is repped by CAA for North America and Match Factory for international.
It took Amer six years and 360 hours of interviews to make “You Resemble Me.” She used her investigative skills to get a real sense of who Aït Boulahcen was and write a script which was as close to reality as possible.
She says the starting point for the movie was a video of the Charlie Hebdo attacks showing the Kouachi brothers coming out of the decimated newsroom and killing a cop, Ahmed Merabet, at point blank.
“It was so much more than just like a viral video of violence. I really saw a way to deconstruct terrorism and find out who are these human beings behind the violence in an effort to have a dialogue that can bring solutions to the problem,” says Amer. She was in the middle of writing when the November attacks happened. Upon hearing that the borders of France were closing, she rushed to the airport where she managed to board the last flight.
“I just had to experience what it felt like to be there in the aftermath and it broke my heart when I felt the trauma and the panic that Paris was filled with,” says Amer. “It wasn’t even grieving. It was shock. It was being frozen with trauma. And I went straight to the scenes of the attack and reported on the story for Vice at the time on air.”
Five days after the attacks, Amer went to Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris, after police reported that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a key suspect of the attacks, was hiding.
“Then a bomb went off and I reported just like every other news outlet that Hasna was the first female suicide bomber of Europe… I felt instantly the shock waves of fear and panic that were erupting in the neighborhood with all women who were visibly Muslim, who were like, who is this woman who’s known as the ‘cow girl of the hood.’ Did she become Muslim overnight or something, and then she blows herself up and she says, I represent ISIS?” and now our position in France, which is already a difficult one, is now impossible,” Amer recalls.
Two days later, police said they had it wrong — Hasna Aït Boulahcen didn’t blow herself up. She got killed in the explosion caused by the suicide vest of a third person who was hiding with her and Abaaoud in the Saint-Denis building. “But the damage was done. Every single news outlet from all over the world had said she was a female suicide bomber, and because she was a woman the headlines were salacious, referring to her as a trashy girl who had a wild lifestyle.”
The first time she met Aït Boulahcen’s mother, she showed her a picture of her daughter as a child, an image that struck Amer.
“All of the sudden, something shifted dramatically, and I was like, ‘how did this little innocent girl becomes the woman with the hijab on the news and how does she grow up to want to die,'” says Amer.
Amer says “the most perverse criminal thing about the radicalization is that young, broken people who are looking for a place in society and a purpose in life are being manipulated into committing perverse political actions.”
“But there is hope — when I sat and talked to radiation expert, they told me that these individuals who left to go to Syria and got enchanted by ISIS were, in many cases, the same people who wanted to serve refugee camps and also in the army,” says Amer.
Although “You Resemble Me” is a fiction, Amer says she made sure to cast people from Aït Boulahcen’s neighborhood so that the film would feel authentic. The role of Aït Boulahcen, meanwhile, is played by three different actors, Mouna Soualem (“You Deserve a Love”) who delivers an impressive performance, Sabrina Ouazani and Amer herself. The idea behind this split role was to reflect Aït Boulahcen’s “fragmented” identity. “I wanted three women who come from a similar background who have to contend with the same mission of reconciling that identity of being Arab and Western and Muslim and Liberal,” says Amer.
More than a film about ISIS recruitment or the Paris attacks, Amer says the movie tackles the global issue of radicalization which transcends race or religion.
“I think it’s not just a Muslim problem. It’s a far right wing problem as well. All the radicalization experts that I was consulting while making this film said their focus of work now is on far right extremism, and it’s almost a carbon copy psychology of people who sign up for ISIS,” says Amer.
Amer, who previously helped produce the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Square” about the Egyptian Revolution, says she walked away from a multi-million deal with a streaming service to maintain her complete freedom on the project. On top of Jonze, with whom she worked at Vice, Amer was supported by Lee, her professor at NYU, who advised her to stick to her creative vision. “He said to me, ‘you know what Dina, you make the film you want to make and that’s it. No regrets. You decide what is important to you, and if you cannot make the film through that kind of little box that they’re putting you in, then leave.” Amer produced the film with Karim Amer and Elizabeth Woodward.
She’s currently developing her sophomore outing, which will be set in a post-pandemic world and based on research that she’s done in Costa Rica. It will revolve around a new wave of people who have abandoned their jobs and settled in Costa Rica, seeking to create an alternate society but causing more damage than good in the process.
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