You Resemble Me: Exploring the roots of radicalisation in the Paris banlieues
Like many films that depict poverty or crime, films about the Paris banlieues more often than not reinforce harmful stereotypes. Filmmakers aren’t necessarily badly intentioned, but they’re unaware of the real-life consequences their stories can have.
Take an example from last year’s Cannes Film Festival: after The Stronghold (Bac Nord), a crime drama set in Marseille’s banlieues, was premiered, an Irish journalist asked the director if he was conscious that this was an important election year in France, and that since the film portrayed people from the banlieues as violent and hostile, that many people watching the film might be tempted to vote for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
Films that have an ‘Us vs. Them’ rhetoric often don’t bother to explore why marginalised people are marginalised in the first place, and why they struggle to ever feel integrated.
"The semi-fictional drama, executively produced by Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, and Riz Ahmed, dives into a major issue of the 21st century: radicalisation"
This is far from the case for You Resemble Me, the debut feature of Egyptian-American filmmaker Dina Amer.
The semi-fictional drama, executively produced by Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, and Riz Ahmed, dives into a major issue of the 21st century: radicalisation.
But unlike many news documentaries, this film depicts the roots of the ‘radicalised’ Hasna Aït Boulahcen with intimacy and empathy, exploring her tough upbringing and dysfunctional family in the Paris banlieues.
The film continues its long festival circuit after first premiering at the Venice International Film Festival. It was recently shown at the Human Rights Watch Festival in London and will next head to the Netherlands for the IFFG International Film Festival Gorinchem in mid-April, though it has yet to secure a wider international release.
Hasna Aït Boulahcen, the subject of the film, was killed at 26 a few days after the November 2015 Paris terror attacks. This young French Muslim woman of Moroccan origin was mistakenly labelled ‘the first European female suicide bomber’ in initial media reports.
A bomb placed on her was detonated in a Saint-Denis flat where Islamic State group (IS) terrorists were hiding, killing Hasna and two others – including her cousin and the mastermind behind the Paris attacks: Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
Though French police and then journalists initially reported that Hasna was a suicide bomber, it was later revealed that the woman had cried out 'help me, help me’ shortly before the explosion, that the bomb was forcefully placed on her, and that she did not detonate it either.
"This young French Muslim woman of Moroccan origin was mistakenly labelled ‘the first European female suicide bomber’ in initial media reports"
Dina Amer was well aware of this mix-up, as she was on the scene reporting for VICE News. After the Saint-Denis raid, Dina got a tip about where to find Hasna’s mother.
The grieving mother was rejecting every approach by journalists but made an exception for Dina.
“I found the family and the mum turned away every single journalist but let me in because she felt I bore a resemblance to the daughter that she abandoned,” Dina told The New Arab.
She started off as a journalist before turning to cinema. Between reporting for international news outlets and feature filmmaking, there were several common threads that made the transition seamless: a diligent research process, and an empathy for the people behind the characters.
Since 2015, Dina has spent her time speaking with Hasna’s family and friends, amassing 360 hours of interviews to make You Resemble Me as authentic as possible to her life.
“I wanted people to really be in her shoes and in her skin, and I knew I wouldn't be able to achieve that through documentary,” Dina explained about why she chose the route of fiction to portray Hasna, casting many amateur actors from the same rough neighbourhood.
The filmmaker gained the family’s trust, even attending Hasna’s funeral, where she saw Mariam, the younger sister, wailing in the corner, and the mother praying next to the corpse.
Instantly, Dina knew that her film would not be about radicalisation or even religion, but about a broken family and identity.
"I wanted people to really be in her shoes and in her skin"
The more Dina learned about Hasna, the more she felt she saw herself in her. “At the core, she was just really struggling with her identity, and it’s a difficult identity to navigate, as a Muslim woman in the West. She's trying to be modern but also has a sense of connection to tradition, and you feel like you're not really fitting into any of the boxes.”
The film starts by depicting the close bond between the sisters Hasna and Mariam as children, who were separated into different foster care families after their mentally ill mother abused them.
As she grew up, Hasna never fit in anywhere and felt too different from her white French adopted family. She begged on the streets and fell into drug abuse and even prostitution. As news of the conflict in Syria broke out, she wanted to help, pulled by empathy for people who looked like her.
In a scene that could have been mistaken for Paris in 2022 ahead of the presidential elections, Hasna smokes a cigarette in front of a 2012 campaign poster of Marine Le Pen.
Hasna then tries to enlist in the French army to fight in Syria, she says: “Since I was five years old I have wanted to protect people. I'm ready to die.”
Again, she’s rejected and deemed unqualified. It is after that that she finds her cousin Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s Facebook posts about radical Islamism, and though sceptical at first, she’s welcomed and treated with compassion by him, which slowly pulls her into his philosophy.
“I feel like Hasna could have really benefitted from counselling and therapy,” Dina said. “This is a mental illness issue more than anything.”
The film concludes with a rare real-life interview with Mariam, who tells Dina that she still can’t find work because she is stigmatised, both for her last name and for being an Arab Muslim woman.
"No matter how much Mariam tried to integrate and follow the French rulebook... she was called a terrorist just like her sister"
Alluding to the film’s title, Mariam said about Hasna: “she resembles me…” The filmmaker felt that her sense of connection towards Hasna would be one that many Arab Muslim women in the west might also relate to.
“No matter how much Mariam tried to integrate and follow the French rulebook, speaking with the right accent, getting a nose job to look more European, separating herself from her sister and the banlieues, no matter what she did, she was called a terrorist just like her sister. There was no consideration for her. She’s struggling with her identity as well.”
As Islamophobia has risen in France and across Europe in recent years, serving to popularise far-right ideas, Dina hopes that films can respond to tell authentic stories of people on the margins, rather than ones that perpetuate divisive rhetoric and lack empathy.
“The far-right and IS need each other to prove that the reality of our society is a clash of civilisations, that is how they recruit more people,” she said.
“This is a cycle of violence that is not going to disappear. This rage still exists. Whether you like it or not, she [Hasna Aït Boulahcen] is a human being, just like us.”
Alexander Durie is a Multimedia Journalist for The New Arab. His stories focus on social movements, migration issues, and the arts & culture of the SWANA region. He has contributed to The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, The Economist, The Independent, and more.
Follow him on Twitter: @alexander_durie