You Resemble Me is a semi-biographical portrait of Hasna Aït Boulahcen, the woman accused of being France’s first female suicide bomber following the Saint-Denis raid in 2015. Director, co-screenwriter and journalist Dina Amer was given exclusive contact with Boulachen’s family, who worked with her for several years to make the story as true to life as possible. It’s the sort of film with a list of executive producers that speaks to the importance of its story: Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, Riz Ahmed and Alma Har’el all helped it gain financing. With its commitment to unsparing storytelling, strong performances and intelligent, unconventional structure, You Resemble Me is a powerful look at identity and radicalization.
Like many American audiences — particularly seven years after her death and the mass media frenzy that followed — I was unaware of Boulachen’s life story. In fact, I did not research the film before sitting down to watch it. The first act follows young Hasna (Lorenza Grimaudo) and her sister, Mariam (Ilonna Grimaudo), two Arab girls living on the fringes in Paris. Their mother is abusive, their family in constant turmoil. They get up to trouble on the streets but also exist within an immigrant community that recognizes them and provides a small sense of belonging. Due to their unstable home life, Hasna is something of a protector to Mariam. This segment of the film is harrowing, intimate and incredibly sad. Hasna is strong-willed and independent, sometimes a hard leader for her sister, but their mutual love keeps them going until French social services split them, sending them to separate foster families. I connected with the story not knowing the biographical nature of Amer’s script.
A time jump establishes Hasna as an adult, played in different aspects by Mouna Soualem, Sabrina Ouazani and Amer herself (with Soualem the primary performer). After turbulent teenage years, Hasna is now a grown woman working menial jobs by day and sometimes as a prostitute at night. She parties. She makes some bad choices. Eventually, she starts flirting online with Abdelhamid (Alexandre Gonin), a man she knew from the past who promotes emigration to Syria to fight for ISIS. His worldview starts to seep into hers, leading to real-life events in 2015. The closer Hasna comes to her death, the more she starts to split into different aspects of herself, reflecting those the world dissected once she became the subject of national news.
The party girl, the radicalized woman, the survivor. All three of them, together and separate, made Hasna the subject of tabloid speculation. The way in which Hasna’s family had to deal with their loved one (or former loved one) having made the choices she made, and society’s view of her, caused immense grief and pain. Although the film is largely told in semi-chronological order as a straightforward narrative, its greatest choice is to let the final moments lapse into documentary-life denouement. In some films, such a choice simply wouldn’t work, but Amer gently builds toward it through increasingly surreal moments involving Hasna’s selves. What seems to be a simple visual device within the context of a fictional story reveals itself as a commentary on the way culture at large can define someone without ever knowing who they are, where they came from or what they might have truly experienced.
It’s a smart script and a smart film. Amer makes her debut here, and her confidence in the story and its message is clear and astounding. There are many films about radicalization that simplify the road a person travels to dying for a cause; there are fewer that, like You Resemble Me, take on the idea of what radicalization means head-on. Undoubtedly, Hasna became enamored with ISIS and its ideology. However, the way the media jumped to define her as a suicide bomber (“the first female suicide bomber in France”) also speaks to the way that country’s media defined those who found themselves on that path, at that time. Her true story was much more complex and tragic, and the film perfectly captures that truth.