As Britain wrestles with the fate of teenage jihadist Shamima Begum, currently marooned and stateless in Syria, French-Arab journalist-turned-filmmaker Dina Amer dramatises the life of another jihadist to deliver a searing corrective to anyone whose solution involves some variant of ‘let her rot’. It will, no doubt, stoke heated debate in France, but its message of reconciliation and understanding across racial and cultural lines is applicable just about anywhere. It has a scrappy, throat-grabbing energy and a sincerity that never feels hectoring.
Amer has reported for the New York Times and CNN and her journalistic instincts underpin the film’s central question, one that is literally ripped from the headlines: who was Hasna Aït Boulahcen? The French-Arab supposed suicide bomber was killed in the aftermath of Paris’s 2015 Bataclan attacks when an explosive vest went off in an apartment block. The press condemned her as a terrorist. You Resemble Me reclaims her humanity in all its messiness, complexity and sadness.
Essentially, the story works backwards to dramatise the life that led to that point. As part-fictionalised here – albeit with a script built on expert testimony from family and friends – it is more The 400 Blows than The Battle of Algiers. A young Hasna and her sister knock about their Parisian estate, free spirits suffering under the malign spell of a mum who has half given up on them.
Foster homes – separate ones – await. A jump forward in time has a now twentysomething Hasna estranged from her sis, knocking about in nightclubs and suffering under the malign spell of abusive men.
Grim patterns are established and the film dextrously shows how their fallout leaches this young woman of a sense of who she is, robbing her of a place in the world and her mental health and leaving her susceptible to her jihadist cousin on social media.
You Resemble Me shows how the promise of community and a sense of purpose is seriously seductive when you have nowhere else to go.
The film boasts some influential backers (Spike Jonze, Spike Lee, and Honey Boy director Alma Har’el are all executive producers), but its style belongs to its director alone. There’s a bold formal device that visualises Hasna as three separate actresses (including Amer herself), which works in a go-with-it kinda way, offering a visual representation of a cracked psyche that makes most sense in the film’s final throes.
But a switch to newsreel-style footage in the last moments is a more effective tool for bringing it all home. The images feel as familiar as the stories behind them are alien and unknowable. You Resemble Me wants to start setting the record straight.
In US theaters now. In UK cinemas Feb 3, 2023.