Written by Samah Meghjee
You Resemble Me, the debut feature by Egyptian-American filmmaker Dina Amer, tells the true story of a woman who was touted as the first female suicide bomber in France after the Paris attacks in 2015. The film is a reminder that radicalization comes from the circumstances we’re born into and the trauma we endure. Although this idea can apply to anyone, anywhere, the film particularly resonated with me as a Muslim woman living in America.
When watching You Resemble Me, I was viscerally struck by how much the main character, Hasna, reminded me of myself. This is surprising, despite the film’s title, because Hasna is not like me — for much of the movie she is a child, and then a member of ISIS. She is a troubled foster youth, then a sex worker, and simmers with an insatiable violence that is only provoked by her circumstances. But she shares a trait with me that I think she probably shares with you too — a human desperation to take her life back from a system that is robbing her of it.
Hasna’s cousin inducts her into ISIS over Facebook; she remembers the similar abuses that they faced as children and the bond they grew out of it. He convinces her that he has found salvation, and she can too. She dies with him and is blamed for the attack. But after three different women’s photos were shown in the news as Hasna (only one of which was accurate, inspiring the use of three actresses playing Hasna in the film, including Amer herself), it became clear through the autopsy that Hasna had not detonated the bomb at all, but was a victim of the attacks herself.
From conducting over 300 hours of interviews with friends and family of Hasna, including her mother and sister who are prominent characters in the film, Amer was able to paint the picture of a severely abused young girl whose torment leads to a confused and unstable young adulthood. Hasna is only ever trying to do what’s fair, or more Islamically, just. “Just” in Islam is a huge deal — it’s one of the 99 names of God, Al-‘Adl, a word I repeated over and over as a child in an effort to convince myself that it was a value I could have, too, even in post-9/11 America.
Hasna’s torment as a child abused at the hands of her mother who starves her, and then again at the hands of a white and oppressive foster system that separates her from her sister can only evoke the seeking of justice. Hasna tries to protect her sister, to protect herself. When her new white French foster family tries to make her eat pork, she throws it right back up. When the fellow-Muslim army recruiter denies her a spot in the military and the movie swells to a climax, Hasna speaks some of the most resonant words in the movie: “You cannot learn courage.”
Hasna can’t catch a break. Her estranged and traumatic relationship with her family, her abuse at the hands of men including her cousin who marries her, and her denial from the military where she seeks to channel her unbridled anger all funnel into her desperate need to feel useful. To feel loved. When she turns to ISIS, we as an audience understand her radicalization. Her slow descent into brainwashing is eerie and terrifying, but when Hasna argues with a French policewoman that she should be allowed to wear her burka, we must also confront the fact that although she is brainwashed and has donned the burka for the wrong reasons, in that moment, she is right.
Most importantly, we are reminded that we are no better than Hasna. Given the right (or, very, very wrong) circumstances, anyone is susceptible to radicalization. It is at this root that Amer’s point hits home — Hasna’s radicalization into ISIS was not her fault. It can feel dangerous to sympathize with a terrorist, to make her human when we’re told not to speak serial killer’s names and to only whisper the word “ISIS.” Like Amer says, “the mission of this film is not to excuse her choice but to examine how she arrived at that decision.” If we strive to understand people who are driven to violence, we can uncover the systems that harm them. It is a great leap towards creating a better society for everyone.
The film is a testament to Amer’s brilliant direction. Her dedication to getting to know the real people in Hasna’s life and to shoot in the actual locations where Hasna’s life took place serve the film immensely. When Amer met Hasna’s mother Amina for the first time, Amina told Amer that she reminded her of Hasna. This likeness bleeds into the film so beautifully that you can’t help but feel that strong connection, and can’t help but feel connected to it too. Hasna is portrayed fairly, balanced in a way that most media does not allow brown people to be portrayed. It’s not likeness to a terrorist, it’s likeness to a determined young woman with so much courage that was usurped and twisted, leading to a path of violence and destruction.
The choice to include large swaths of Hasna’s childhood is both a testament to Amer’s storytelling and vow to “experience [Hasna’s] complicated humanity,” and to the talent of young actresses Lorenza and Ilonna Grimaudo. The joy of childhood interwoven with the bitterness of having to grow up too early easily carry over into adult Hasna’s life. Each actress portraying adult Hasna delicately balances her disturbed fragility and “cowboy” levity to create what really is a likeable woman, had she only gotten a chance.
You Resemble Me is a reminder that the condemnation of radicals is wrong if you cannot also condemn the system that makes them.
The film opens in US theatres on November 4. Watch trailer here.
OPINION is a publication of female-led film/TV reviews written by women storytellers from Wscripted’s community. In each OPINION, writers share their informed perspectives about the film, tackling such themes as the female gaze, underrepresented characters, story analysis, and artistic direction. OPINION aims to elevate the conversation and celebrate the plurality of women’s points of view to enrich the development of stories for Film & TV.