Has your imagination ever been ignited by a report of a crime in the press? Your curiosity piqued, you find yourself wondering what might have motivated the culprit to play their part in the drama? Journalist Dina Amer, who covered the story of ISIS recruit Hasna Aït Boulahcen, found herself not just imagining the life of the terror suspect, but delving deep into seven years of research, culminating in the birth of her debut feature film You Resemble Me. Amer chose to fictionalise her chosen subject matter fully, rather than creating a conventional re-enactment or straight documentary. And this was a wise move, as the resulting film is profoundly immersive, drawing us deep into the interior world of the protagonist Hasna. We experience her thrilling sense of feral freedom as a young child, roaming the streets of Paris with her younger sister Myriam. And then we feel her fear and distress as she navigates the predatory world of those same streets, bristling with menace, without the protection of a guardian or the safety of a home.
The performances of the child actors playing Hasna and Myriam are truly compelling. The two girls, who are real-life sisters, are bursting with charm and have huge presence on the screen. The camera moves up close to their faces, and we feel ourselves living inside their skins. Which only makes the gruelling episodes that follow, hit us all the harder. Amer is careful not to inflict gratuitous horror on the audience, instead hinting powerfully at what is happening off screen.
The movie traces the tragic biography of Hasna, beginning with her close bond to her younger sister Myriam in their turbulent home life, followed by their forced separation by French social services and placement in foster care, and ending with Hasna’s rapid recruitment into an ISIS terror cell run by her cousin Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Hasna was just twenty-six years old when she was blown up by Abaaoud’s explosive device. The initial reports in the press sensationally dubbed Hasna Europe’s first female suicide bomber. It was only later that the true facts emerged, with Hasna cleared of blame for the blast.
You Resemble Me, directed by Dina Amer, written by Dina Amer and Omar Malik, produced by The Others and Willa Productions, France, 2021
The story of Hasna Aït Boulahcen shares many parallels with another female rebel figure who received the cinematic treatment: Phoolan Devi, played brilliantly by Seema Biswas in Shekhar Kapur’s iconic 1994 movie Bandit Queen. Both women began life in deeply troubled circumstances, then underwent harrowing trauma and humiliation before seeking a dramatic exit from their plights. Phoolan Devi won fame as the leader of a Dacoit gang which gunned down twenty men in a Valentine’s Day massacre at Behmai, India, in 1981. The bloodbath was revenge for a horrific episode of rape by upper-caste bandits from a rival gang and also for the murder of Devi’s lover Vikram Mallah. Director Shekhar Kapur came under heavy criticism from some quarters for his explicit depiction of episodes from Devi’s life. And yet his film unarguably portrays Phoolan as a flawed but deeply sympathetic character. We feel her pain.