Skip to content

The Shadow that Sticks: A review of Dina Amer’s “You Resemble Me”

  • Culture

Amelia Casey-Rerhaye, Managing Editor

‘People are going to think you’re crazy’, my mum says to me on the phone. Sat outside Belsize Park tube station, I’m just about pulling myself together after ten minutes of hysterical sobbing. I always thought it would be cool to have a dramatic crying-in-public-and-not-caring-about-it as London carries on around me moment. I did not think it would be caused by a film, though.

You Resemble Me is Dina Amer’s first film, and considering the response it has garnered, it is unlikely to be her last. ‘It took every bit of me to make this film’ Amer revealed to the audience before its first screening in London, ‘my gut, my heart, my soul…everything’. You feel it from the first scene, the first time the young girl playing Hasna starts her mantra: ‘je sais qui je suis/I know who I am’. The film took just under seven years to make, most of that was spent researching and talking with Hasna’s family. The filming itself was done rather quickly, the opening scenes with the children in Paris being finished in a matter of weeks. The hours of dedicated work, of time and effort, comes across potently in the care given to the creation of Hasna’s character, the words that make up the script and the movement of the camera as it follows the girls around Paris. This film could have been a multimillion-dollar project in collaboration with Amazon, but Amer turned it down. DP Omar Malik could run with the girls if the camera was small, Amer told us, he couldn’t if it was a “bigass” expensive one.

The film tells the story of Hasna Ait Boulahcan, a French-Moroccan woman who died in November 2015 during a police raid on a terrorist threat. An explosion in an apartment killed her and two men – and, in the coming days, was reported to have been set off by Hasna herself. ‘The first female suicide bomber’ dominated headlines following the incident. When it was eventually revealed that she had only been present, not an active participant, Dina Amer’s journey with this film began. Amer herself had been reporting on the explosion in Paris for Vice News. She, in turn, had propelled this story which turned out to be false, in turn propelling the spread of three images across the media which were supposedly Hasna but in truth were Hasna, her sister Maryam and another Moroccan woman of no connection to the Ait Boulahcen sisters.

Amer took this trio-ism that was so crudely created by the media and allowed it to seep into the film. Three actors, Mouna Soualem, Sabrina Ouazani and Amer herself, take on the role of adult Hasna, creating a persona that morphs into different visages. The introduction of Hasna as an adult is in a nightclub. Amongst the lights and confusion, the audience is lost in her ever-changing face, Hasna appears unfocused and unreal. Amer took the actions of an indifferent press and configured them to exemplify the intensity of identity war that Hasna, and women like her, experience within themselves. What reaches out and grabs you in this film is its ability to force the audience to completely empathise with Hasna in every moment. Her lack of solid corporeal being and the repeated shots of herself being reflected in multiple mirrors lets the audience visualise the internal fractures of Hasna’s person. Alma Har’el said ‘You [Amer] make the viewer feel and you humanise the characters in a way that makes it hard to feel.’ The film forces you to cry when Hasna watches her cousin’s radicalising video, forces you to understand the rejection that leads her to want to find something solid to hold onto, and finally makes you follow her in her grapple for God and her cousin in her desperation.

The shadow of this life unlived looms large throughout the film.

Themes of dualism and dichotomy are omnipresent throughout the film. It was only on my second watch that I noticed her eyes change twice from dark brown to light blue. Both times it is during a scene in which Hasna is removed from her culture and individual identity. The dualism continues between her and her little sister Maryam. Separated when they are young, they experience two different worlds. Maryam rejects her Arab-ness, she regularly straightens her hair, and gets a nose job to avoid being stigmatized – in the story and in the documentary both, Maryam represents the other alternative, the other side to Hasna’s coin. The shadow of this life unlived looms large throughout the film. 

Maybe what is most impressive about this film is that it is not a tragedy. Though it is tragic, there is no moment of woe; even the point where Hasna dies is not the end of the film nor the climax. There is no sense of inauthenticity or dramatization. It is painfully clear that every irony of her life, every unfortunately timed moment, even the obvious artistic filmography choices, were true and accurate in some sense.

Dina Amer was able to get an interview with Hasna’s mother, unlike all other press, because she looked like Hasna. I sobbed on the phone to my mother because the young Maryam in the film looked like me when I was little, and because, though my life has not known the hardship that Hasna’s did, I saw the same identity battle in her as in myself. I haven’t gone into a lot of detail on the social commentary that this film expresses – on racism, islamophobia, classism, and oppression – I want you to watch the film and understand it for yourself.

You can watch the You Resemble Me on BFI player or Curzon Home Cinema, check this link for more information:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *