‘I believe stories choose people,” says Dina Amer, explaining why she spent six difficult years making a film about the woman dubbed “Europe’s first female suicide bomber”. She adds: “I never would have chosen this story in a million years.”
It later transpired that the woman, Hasna Aït Boulahcen, did not, in fact, blow herself up. She was in an apartment raided by French police in November 2015, shortly after the Islamist terror attacks on the Bataclan nightclub, the Stade de France and other Paris locations that killed 137 people. Also in the apartment was Boulahcen’s cousin, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who had masterminded the attacks and persuaded Boulahcen to join Islamic State. With the apartment surrounded, another of the terrorists is thought to have detonated the explosives. Moments before, Boulahcen was heard screaming to police outside: “Please help! Let me jump! I want to leave!”
Amer, then an Egyptian-American journalist based in New York, was in Paris to cover the attacks for Vice News. “I reported that fake news headline just like everyone else,” she says, referring to the claim that Boulahcen was a suicide bomber. But unlike everyone else, Amer couldn’t let the story go – or maybe the story wouldn’t let her go. “I was completely possessed and obsessed with Hasna,” she says, speaking by video from the Sundance film festival. “I had no choice but to make the film.”
Amer approached Boulahcen’s mother, a first-generation Moroccan immigrant, who let the director into her apartment on the outskirts of Paris. “She said, ‘You look like Hasna. You laugh like her. You walk like her.’ She said, ‘I feel like Hasna is the one who brought you to us. I think she’s inside of you.’ I realised this wasn’t a film about terrorism. This was a story about a dysfunctional family and a woman struggling with her sense of self. This was a film about a woman who resembled me.”
Amer spent over 360 hours interviewing Boulahcen’s family, even accompanying them to the morgue to view her remains, five months after the attacks. “There was this glass casing,” says Amer. “She was like a mummy at the Louvre. I saw her, but for all my so-called courage, my body buckled. I couldn’t get close to that glass.” It was a surreal scene, she says, the mother praying, the sister hysterical.
The result, Amer’s first film, is You Resemble Me. Its title refers to the director’s own feelings, but also Boulahcen’s close bond with her younger sister, Mariam. At the start of the film, the two – played by real-life sisters Lorenza and Ilonna Grimaudo – are thick as thieves, escaping from their mother and living almost feral in the Paris suburbs. But they are rounded up by social services and cruelly farmed out to separate foster parents.
As a grown woman, Boulahcen is something of a lost soul, drifting between jobs, friends’ apartments, nightclubs and, it is implied, sex work – just the type of misfit Islamic State preyed upon, although Amer’s film points to any number of causes for Boulahcen’s tragic life, including French society at large and her dysfunctional family.
You Resemble Me is not a straightforward dramatisation, though. As a grownup, Boulahcen is portrayed by three different actors, including Amer herself. Immediately after her death, the media circulated images of three different women they identified as Boulahcen, Amer explains. The film also switches jarringly into documentary mode in its latter stages, as we meet Boulahcen’s real-life relatives. It is a fractured narrative for a fractured identity. “She had these broken pieces within her,” says Amer, “feeling like, ‘I don’t belong anywhere.’ And the toll of shapeshifting, finding connection and that fragility, I think it was the death of her. I felt her struggle, her contradiction, because I’m living it.”
Amer’s own upbringing wasn’t quite as challenging. She grew up in the US, after her parents emigrated from Egypt. Her father is a doctor and her mother did development work. But she still faced challenges reconciling her Muslim and American identities. “There was pressure on me from my parents, bless them, to be this perfect Arab girl who was at the pinnacle of modernity and still abiding by all the rules of being a good Muslim girl.”
Like her idol, CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour, Amer became a journalist. She went undercover to document the sex-trafficking of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. She reported on tunnels under Gaza and was knocked unconscious during the Arab spring in Egypt. Now she describes herself as “a recovering journalist”. After covering Boulahcen’s story, she became disenchanted with the news model of “soaking it up and blasting it out and moving on to the next place where there’s grief and trauma and pain. There isn’t a space for intimacy and immersion and nuance – really travelling into the grey of a story. And I think the grey is sacred. That’s where we can all meet each other.”
She got a scholarship to NYU film school, where Spike Lee was her professor. When she asked him if she should finish the course or drop out to make the film, he replied: “Pray on it.” She left, and got a multi-million dollar deal with Amazon, but they wanted her to make a straight documentary, while Amer wanted to tell the story her way.
So she walked away and chose to make the film independently, which partly explains why it all took so long. In the end, though, the actual shoot lasted just two and a half weeks, especially impressive considering the natural performances she gets from her child actors. “Everything was hard,” she says, “so directing kids just felt like another aspect of what it took to make this film.”
Fortunately, Amer had accumulated some film-maker allies along the way. You Resemble Me’s producers include Lee, Spike Jonze, Alma Har’el and Riz Ahmed. They gave her advice as the film slowly progressed. “All of them know what it feels like to be ‘the other’,” says Amer.
“I think we’ve all got a similar point of view on the world and the role of stories,” says Ahmed, who met Amer “randomly” 10 years ago. “We’ve all, over the last 20 years, lived through this troubling war on terror with its tendency to dehumanise and simplify. So it’s easy to double down on those narratives. Dina understands, both from her personal experience and her professional experience, the importance of rebalancing those two-dimensional portrayals with something truly empathic.”
Har’el, whose films have also blended fiction and documentary, agrees: “It’s really hard to capture nuance when you practice film-making that is very generic and has to fall into festival categories and distribution categories, and all sorts of ideas society has imposed on films. Sometimes it takes an artist like Dina to step out of those binary ideas of film-making and identity.”
In 2016, Har’el launched Free the Bid, which advocates for more women directors in cinema and advertising. Similarly, in 2021, Ahmed co-launched a Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion in the film industry. This is not just about inclusion being an inherently good thing; it is also about representation as a tool for resolving issues of integration and alienation. Ahmed has been outspoken on these matters. In 2017, he told the British parliament that a lack of diverse narratives could lead minority citizens to “switch off and retreat to fringe narratives, to bubbles online and sometimes even off to Syria”.
You Resemble Me, says Ahmed, is not a treatise about extremism or religion, though. “To me, this film is about women who are stuck between a rock and a hard place of competing forms of chauvinism or patriarchy. And how things can boil over when they aren’t allowed space – a safe place to express themselves, to just survive, let alone thrive.”
Amer says she is “exhausted with identity politics” and would love to make a film that is “post-identity”. She mentions one interviewee for the film who backed out on discovering she was Muslim. “He said, ‘You’re part of the problem. You are creating a barrier between yourself and our society by putting that label on yourself. And we should all be leaving our religions and our roots at the door and living as equals.’ That’s a beautiful idea. But why do I have to scrub off where I come from in order to fit in to your vision of an equal society?”
Like her mentors, Amer is striving to bring that post-identity world into being, by recognising the individuality and humanity of subjects who have often been stereotyped. She’s no longer a “recovering journalist” but a film-maker with a mission. “The risk is exhilarating and also quite taxing,” she says. “But I feel like I’ve fallen in love with it and have no choice but to carry on. Film is transformative. It can save people’s lives.”
You Resemble Me is released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 3 February.