Dina Amer on Her Debut Film, ‘You Resemble Me,’ a True Story About Radicalization

Amer's directorial debut takes on "the sacred gray" of subjectivity that the news was not able to afford her subject, Hasna Ait Boulahcen.

Mouna Soualem as one of three adult Hasna’s in You Resemble Me. You Resemble Me, Willa Productions

Dina Amer is an Egyptian-American journalist who turned to filmmaking after becoming “disenchanted with the news cycle,” she told Observer in a recent Zoom interview. An on-air correspondent for Vice News and a contributor to other high profile outlets, Amer found herself at the center of an unnerving false news story that concerned terrorism and radicalization. With You Resemble Me, the first-time director seeks to paint a more nuanced picture of Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the radicalized French woman who was wrongfully accused of being Europe’s first female suicide bomber. Amer blends the semi-fictionalized narrative story of Hasna’s life with startlingly intense documentary footage at the end, making for an experimental and emotionally demanding viewing experience.

Amer spoke with Observer about the headlines surrounding Hasna, the impact that Hasna’s family had on the film, and the trials and tribulations of making and distributing a film independently.

From the outset, You Resemble Me is a movie with a fairly controversial story source, what with it being about a radicalized woman who was falsely accused of being Europe’s first female suicide bomber. How did you land on Hasna’s story, and what made you so determined to tell it?

I was actually at the scene where the attack happened, where the bomb went off during the police raid in Saint Denis. I was there, and I reported for Vice News the news that Hasna was the first female suicide bomber, which turned out to be a fake news headline. But every other news outlet had confirmed it, and it had traveled the world. And there was so much crass, scandalous language in the reporting of this headline because she was a woman. There were headlines like, “How She Went from the Mini-Skirt to the Niqab,” and “Skanky Suicide Bomber.”

It was just so fictitious and sensationalized and problematic that I felt I needed to redeem at least my sin as a journalist of perpetuating a false headline, and I needed to go find her real family. I went to her neighborhood in Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the toughest neighborhoods outside of Paris. [Hasna’s family] had turned away every filmmaker or journalist that had approached them, but [her mother] allowed me into their home, and she entrusted me to tell this story, and it was because she felt that I resembled her daughter. It was all built on that point of surprising resemblance between myself and this woman who was thrown away and characterized as a monster by the media.

Before You Resemble Me and working as a filmmaker, you were a journalist at some pretty high profile news outlets. How did that background and that training factor into how you made this film?

I think that from a young age I was always fascinated and in awe of strong women, like Christiane Amanpour, who were on the front lines of conflict and able to bravely share nuanced reporting with the world, and shine a light on the darkest corners of humanity. For me, even though I loved real stories and storytelling, I really felt disenchanted by the news cycle. I longed to tell real stories in a new way, in a way where I could retain my sensitivity and my subjectivity.

There was something about the power of telling a story on camera, through actors inhabiting the truth and bringing it to life with intimacy and complexity, and allowing a sacred gray to exist as opposed to just being held back to hard facts and, to me, the falsehood of absolute objectivity.

You end the film with more of a documentary approach. How did that fit into the process of making the movie? Was that always something you wanted to end on?

I had done over 360 hours of interviews with the family and the community, and that served as the source material for writing the script. All of the scenarios in the story are accurate, real circumstances that Hasna faced. I really wrestled with how best to use this embarrassment of riches I had, this incredible verite material with the family. I felt like once you showed the documentary and the real family, there was no going back to the fiction.

I knew that it needed to exist in the end, and that was kind of a tragic and necessary gut punch to the audience to remind us that we’re all complicit, and this story really did happen. Hasna existed.

To instead talk about the start of the movie, you spend the first act with Hasna and her sister Mariam as young children, and their story sets the stage for the rest of the movie. Why start with their childhood?

Once I met Hasna’s sister Mariam, and she told me about about their adventures as kids, wearing their pink dresses with the flowers and how they’d run through the legs of security guards and steal food, I understood that you needed to experience those girls growing up. You needed to fall in love with them. You needed to understand that there was a period of innocence and joy and deep connection in Hasna’s life, and that no one comes out of the womb wanting to kill somebody.

People who find themselves seduced into violent extremist organizations had a childhood, and they had many different points in their life where they dreamed of being someone else. [The younger Hasna character] gives us hope that people can be saved at certain points in their journey, if given the right opportunity, if given a community, if given consideration and love and a chance to feel like they’re a part of something. I think these are universal needs that we all are hungering for, and when we don’t have those needs, individuals can grab our attention in the worst way possible — just like Hasna did.

Ilonna Grimaudo and Lorenza Grimaudo as young Mariam and Hasna. You Resemble Me, Willa Productions

What was the experience working with those child actors, given how heavy the subject matter is?

They were phenomenal. I found them through street-casting. I knew instantly they were our young Mariam and Hasna — they really are sisters, they are Algerian and Muslim and French, so they know deeply what it’s like to navigate that identity and the struggle to be fully accepted by a French, white-dominant culture, and I think that they represent French art. France has an incredible history of being a leader of the arts, and yet if you were to ask me, I think some of the greatest art is being suffocated in the hoods of France. There is so much untapped potential in those neighborhoods, and young people who have so much talent and so much energy need to have a healthy place to channel that energy, or else they will put it elsewhere.

I think art can save people’s lives, I deeply believe that. Instead of just policing or militarization as a means to combat violence, invest in the arts and invest in young people. The talent is there, as you can see in those girls.

While on the topic of acting, there are several different actresses that take on the role of adult Hasna in different moments of the film — including you! Where did that idea come from, and how did you decide the ways in which Hasna would be divided up as a character?

I felt that the reason why I could tell this story — because I never would’ve wanted to make a film in France, or about terrorism, for that matter — was because I could understand Hasna’s core plight; she was a fractured woman who was struggling to navigate an identity that felt at odds, or even in contradiction, with itself. Navigating being Muslim and a woman and western and modern and connected to your heritage can be a complicated thing to find harmony within. She doesn’t know which way to go, she’s just trying to exist on her own terms. She’s a victim of a lot of trauma in her life, whether it’s at a family level, on a state violence level.

I personally can relate to dissociation, unfortunately, and I could relate to her multiplicity. The fact that I only even got access to the story because the family felt that I resembled their daughter made it deeply personal and visceral for me. There was a sense of catharsis in stepping into her shoes to showcase that Hasna is every woman, and yet she will remain unknown to us.

She was struggling with code-switching and shapeshifting and morphing herself to try to fit into society, and that took a toll on her. It left her very disconnected from her sense of self, and very vulnerable to brainwash.

You have some really big names supporting this movie, with executive producers like Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, Riz Ahmed, and Alma Har’el. How did you connect with all of these different filmmakers, and where do they fit in the overall story of making and sharing this movie?

I’m so grateful to have the support of my executive producers. I met [Spike Lee] when I was a student at NYU, and he was reading some of my early drafts of the scripts. He was an instrumental mentor who supported me when I wanted to walk away from a multimillion dollar studio deal to make this film independently, on my own creative terms. He was the only person who actually told me, “If it’s not the film you want to make, don’t take the deal,” whereas everyone else was like, “Take it! It might be your only chance!”

Spike Jonze I met through Vice, and he also became a key mentor who read versions of the script, watched the cuts, gave me notes. His filmmaking I admire because it’s wildly imaginative and out of the box, it takes a lot of risks, and so he was also like a North Star and an inspiration to me for some of the more risky choices that I made.

Alma Har’el, we connected, and she saw a cut of the film and really was inspired. I’m inspired by her example as a filmmaker. She’s known for, especially films like Love True or Bombay Beach, even Honey Boy, she blurs fact and fiction in very fascinating ways and is not afraid to subvert form. So that felt very connected to what I was making as well.

Riz Ahmed is one of my dearest friends. He’s Muslim as I am, and he’s an unabashed, unapologetic, world class artist, in my opinion, so it felt very natural for him to be on board this film. It was important for me to also have someone who I deeply respect and understands the nuance of being Muslim to be a part of this team.

This film doesn’t have a traditional distribution model. You’re doing a grassroots marketing and distribution campaign in New York and LA before it’s released nationwide on November 18. What has that process of self-release and self-promotion looked like?

Even though the film premiered at Venice, and we got some very strong reviews and world class supporters on board — we won 30 awards on the festival circuit — the film struggled to get a distribution deal that we felt was really a launch. The deals felt more like a burial than a launch. So we went and decided to take another leap of faith and take on the colossal amount of work that it takes to release a film. Thanks to my powerhouse producer Elizabeth Woodward, and one of my EPs John Glass and a small dedicated team, we were able to get the film booked across the nation, now 80 screens. We had sold out opening weekends in New York and LA, our runs have been extended, and it’s all been about grassroots, person-to-person, handing out flyers on the street corner, whatever it takes to get people into that cinema.

With that, how have you seen the film and this sort of grassroots effort impact audience reception? How have people been responding to it?

I think people are inspired. Even though it’s been a lot of work on our core, small, dedicated team, it’s also been thrilling to connect with audiences and to feel like we have agency to bring this film to audiences.

We’re only staying alive because of other people, because of audience members who are keeping the word going, who are posting, who are sharing, who are bringing five friends to the next showing, who are deciding they want to host a screening and invite their network. It’s been amazing to be in that kind of environment where it’s all relying on human connection and meaningful exchange, and not sitting there begging the corporation to give us a chance. We’re just going straight to the people, and the people are incredible and strong, and the people have decided they like the film. That’s all that matters. I’m grateful.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You Resemble Me is playing in New York and LA now, expanding nationwide on November 18.

Dina Amer on Her Debut Film, ‘You Resemble Me,’ a True Story About Radicalization