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Who was Hasna Ait Boulahcen? In November 2015, after the Paris bombings, news outlets called her “Europe’s first female suicide bomber.” Journalists swarmed around her story, trying to extract details about the mysterious young woman. They wondered how she went from being a fixture of Parisian nightlife to blowing herself up in a flat in Saint-Denis. They published photos of her (or who they thought she was), including one I find myself returning to. In it, Hasna, donning a navy-blue chador and thick black eyeliner, smirks at the camera. Her hands, both making V-signs, frame her soft face.
It turns out that the journalists were wrong. Hasna was not the Continent’s first female suicide bomber. In the rush of reporting and frenzied desperation to assemble a narrative, the media misrepresented her. Footage of the explosion surfaced later, and in it Hasna can be heard screaming, “Please help! Let me jump! I want to leave.” Dina Amer, then a reporter with Vice News, was part of that wave of early coverage, and, according to press notes, found herself haunted by Hasna’s voice in that clip. Hasna cannot speak from the grave, but I wonder what she would make of You Resemble Me, Amer’s directorial debut. Despite its uneven patches, this absorbing experimental film (which includes documentary elements toward the end) seemingly conjures the voice of its deceased subject to tell a gripping and painful story of dislocation and belonging.
You Resemble Me, which was written by Amer and the film’s cinematographer, Omar Mullick, opens with a young Hasna (Lorenza Grimaudo) leaning over the balcony of the apartment she shares with her siblings (played by Grimaudo’s real-life brother and sister) and their emotionally absent mother, contemplating a jump. She swings her body forward and backward, testing her resolve until, suddenly, she decides against it. Hasna slinks back into the apartment and rouses her younger sister Mariam (Ilonna Grimaudo).
Today is Mariam’s birthday, and Hasna, after giving her sister a quick bath, presents her with a dress identical to her own. Now looking like twins, the two sneak past their snoring mother (Sana Sri) and set out on an adventure though their neighborhood. This montage, of the girls running through the streets, insisting on their resemblance and teaching each other dance moves, contains some of the film’s most affecting moments. A liberal use of close-ups, with their extended meditations on the siblings’ faces, teases out the warmth and compassion in their relationship without becoming overbearing.
When Hasna and Mariam return to their apartment, their brother Youssef (Djino Grimaudo), cradling their youngest brother on his hip, opens the door. While their mother sleeps, the four siblings gather in a different room to watch television, sing their favorite songs and break into dance. Their fun disturbs their mother, who barges in, starts a fight with Hasna and, in a fury, kicks her daughter out of the apartment. Hasna storms out, taking Mariam with her. The two spend the night begging for food and sleeping in the streets.
The next morning, a child services agent comes upon the girls stealing fruit from a farmers’ market and takes them in. It’s the third time the agency has caught the sisters alone. The social worker decides to place Hasna and her siblings in separate foster homes, undoubtedly a terrible idea. The decision devastates Hasna, who can’t imagine life without her sister. Lorenza Grimaudo perfectly embodies Hasna’s rage, undergirded by deep fear, as she tosses the social worker’s papers across the room before folding her arms and giving in to her fate.
Hasna struggles with her new foster family, who are more concerned with her assimilation than her well-being, and eventually runs away. Fast-forward to several years later, and we find an adult Hasna (now portrayed by Mouna Soualem) dancing in a dark club.
The second half of You Resemble Me chronicles Hasna’s attempts to find an anchor in her adult years. The journey is made more difficult because she no longer has Mariam, who won’t answer her phone calls, or her mother or her own place (she’s been crashing at a friend’s apartment for months). The isolation and dislocation Hasna feels make her, according to the film’s broader thesis, more vulnerable to radicalization.
Hasna’s absorption into the world of ISIS feels like a sudden shift in the film, although I imagine it was more of a slow burn. Amer shows Hasna trying and failing to find her footing through more “conventional” means. Everywhere she turns — whether trying to strike up a casual conversation with a man or attempting to join the French army — she meets a roadblock because of her gender, religious identity or general temperament.
You Resemble Me becomes a little choppier during this half, and it feels like it’s trying to take on too much. Using deepfake technology, Amer manifests Hasna’s sense of dislocation: Hasna’s face morphs into those of other women (played by different actresses, including Amer) at seemingly random moments. Then there’s Amer and Mullick’s screenplay, which could stand to trust viewers a bit more. At times it leans on the repetitive side, desperate for us to feel the importance of some interactions or to connect specific conversations to the film’s thesis.
The irony is that the writing and direction are most affecting in the film’s quieter moments. It’s when Hasna giggles with her sister as they watch boys run a ball up and down a soccer field, or when an adult Hasna proudly indulges in an impromptu selfie session, that the narrative comes together. At these points in the story, “Who is Hasna Ait Boulahcen?” takes on a different tone, more energetic and less fatalistic.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Production companies: The Othrs, VICE/RYOT
Cast: Lorenza Grimaudo, Ilonna Grimaudo, Mouna Soualem, Sabrina Ouazani, Dina Amer, Alexandre Gonin, Sana Sri
Director: Dina Amer
Screenwriters: Dina Amer, Omar Mullick
Producers: Dina Amer, Karim Amer, Elizabeth Woodward
Executive producers: Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, Alma Har’el, Natalie Farrey, Suroosh Alvi, Danny Gabai, Abigail E. Disney, Angie Wang, Hala Mnaymneh, Marni Grossman, Jamie Wolf, Geralyn Dreyfous, Charles de Rosen, Regina K. Scully, Karim Amer
Cinematographer: Omar Mullick
Production designer: Astrid Tonnellier
Costume designer: Nessrine Boukmiche, Dounia Kerroua
Editors: Keiko Deguchi, Jake Roberts
Composers: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Casting director: Nessrine Boukmiche, Dez Epane
In French, Arabic1 hour 30 minutes
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