I was very fortunate to interview “recovering journalist” and producer (“The Square”) Dina Amer about her feature directorial debut “You Resemble Me,” inspired by a story she first got wrong. The story is about a Muslim woman in France named Hasna who got mixed up in an extremist organization that she tried to escape. Hasna was seduced into it by her cousin who was the catalyst of many terrorist attacks at that time. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time at the time of a suicide bomb attack in Paris through a lot of missteps in her challenging life, which made her appear to the world as the “first female suicide bomber.” Dina Amer was on the scene of the attack reporting for Vice that Hasna was the first female suicide bomber until it came out that she wasn’t and wanted out. After that, Dina was driven to get her story right. The first step was meeting Hasna’s mother, and then her entire family, resulting in over 360 hours of interviews.
Dina could have just done a documentary with all of that research, but for this story, it involved more creativity to get inside the shoes of Hasna. “You Resemble Me” is a narrative documentary that follows the character Hasna from a child to adult to her tragic end at too young of an age. The film shows her multiplicity and humanity which is enhanced by a device called “deep-fake technology” that shifts peoples faces into others. This tool was used in a subtle way that fit into the narrative of the mystery of this woman.
I’m grateful to Dina for making this film, and love how she is led to tell stories by “bringing a candle into the darkest corners of humanity . . . transforming the dark into light,” and “allowing us through film to alchemize things that we are afraid of facing.” The film has been supported by big players in the industry who identified with Hasna’s story and are champions of Dina as a person and as a filmmaker. “You Resemble Me” is executive produced by Alma Ha’rel, Riz Ahmed, Spike Lee and Spike Jonze. This film ranked in my top ten of the year so far, and I’m so excited to champion this film into the awards season. Whatever Dina does next, I’m there.
“You Resemble Me” is now playing in New York City and LA, and will be screening in theaters nationwide starting November 18th.
How did you come to this project, and can you talk about mixing narrative and documentary techniques?
As a recovering journalist, real stories mean something to me. I felt like I wanted to tell this story in a way that was authentic, but also allowed for an intimate look at this character who had been dehumanized by the news and written off as a monster. Funnily enough, I was at the scene in Saint Denis the night when the bomb went off. I reported on the news for Vice on air how Hasna was the first female suicide bomber, which turned out to be fake news. I felt so guilty about contributing to a fake news headline that I went to go find her mother. Her mother had turned away every person that approached her, every journalist and filmmaker, except for me. She told me I reminded her of her daughter. Since she had abandoned her, it was a point of catharsis for the mother and an uncanny surprising point of reflection and resemblance between myself and Hasna.
I like how in your directorial statement, you talk about the contradictions in your life as an Egyptian Muslim woman who lives in the west. I feel all women are like this, we all have contradictions, we are all complex, but we don’t see these complexities enough on the screen. Can you talk about how you created this complex character of Hasna?
I thought that bringing real women to step into the shoes of Hasna could give us a glimpse into who she could have been and who she tried to become. Also, she was struggling with a mental health crisis that was centered around having a very fragmented sense of self. That was an invitation in a way to humanize this woman that we had no language for, or familiarity or access to. We invite the audience to perhaps see themselves in someone who feels so foreign, and perhaps that would give them languages to understand how and why people sometimes fall through these cracks by finding meaning and purpose through violence and criminal acts. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It doesn’t happen overnight. There is a process. The attempt of this film is to unveil all the different ingredients that were at play and resulted in the rotten stew of this headline.
Can you talk about finding your Hasnas?
I did a lot of street casting. I found those girls (Lorenza and Illonna Grimaud) on the first day of the audition. They are really sisters who’ve never acted before. We had a long rehearsal period with them. The girls shined in those roles because on some level they are pulling from their own reality. As Muslim French girls, they are navigating identity and trying to find their own harmony and place in France.
For adult Hasna, I felt like the main Hasna gave such a raw performance. Her name is Mouna Soualem. It just became evident that she could really embody Hasna. She could do all the iterations of Hasna that became her other faces and signified her multiplicity and her mystery. She will always be a little unknown to us. Even if I did over 360 hours of interviews embedded with Hasna’s family, we’ll never really know truly who she was. Sabrina Ouazani played another aspect of Hasna: the wild, rebellious, beautiful girl who tried to fit in by using her sexuality at times.
This process was so deeply instinctual and intuitive, I think that I made my choices based from a place that felt right. I think that I was very fortunate to attract such a strong cast who were so dedicated and brave to step into these roles, and to bring complexity and power to these characters.
The western genre is not a boys club anymore. Filmmakers like Chloé Zhao and Jane Campion have been redefining the genre. Westerns are usually associated with American stories, but in this sense I feel Hasna’s character was really attracted to this fantasy of being a cowboy, or cowgirl. Could you comment on that?
I think it’s fascinating that Hasna truly was inspired by cowboy culture. It shines a light on the fact that there is something about her that always felt like this brave outlier. In today’s society we actually commemorate the cowboy archetype. It’s interesting because she wanted to join the army, and also tried to become a police woman, but was rejected from both institutions. Sadly, her version of becoming a “cowgirl” ultimately led to her joining this counterculture radical group. I think it’s important to deconstruct when talking about extremist organizations. There is this punk-like cowboy persona that seduces people into these organizations. But that’s also what that organization is campaigning with a force like ‘we are going against the grain, we’re truth tellers.” This is even like the right wing in America. It’s like this cowboy culture of, ‘we’re just going to go out there, guns blazing, and see how it is.” Sadly there is an allure to that attitude. It’s able to draw in people, and Hasna was one of those individuals.
Can you talk about your use of deep fake technology and how your use of it on Hasna is symbolic to her story?
I understood that Hasna was misrepresented through the news. She was a woman of many faces that were more implicated into her identity in a fictitious way. I wanted to use that media mistake and flip it on its head to step into her shoes to give us some insight into who she could have been and who she tried to become. The deep-fake technology just became an incredible device to allow us to also experience her shape shifting and her code switching in order to find a sense of human connection and belonging.
You have some amazing producers behind this project, specifically one of my favorite filmmakers, Alma Ha’rel. Can you talk about her involvement specifically?
It was a huge honor to have Alma come on board. I’m a big fan of her work. I feel like I’m a kindred spirit to her. I feel I’m a kindred spirit to her sensibility in a way. I love how she blurs fact and fiction, and bends form, and challenges audiences in her storytelling. There is something deeply intimate that’s at the heart of her filmmaking that feels very aligned with my interests as an artist. It made sense for us to join forces. I was so grateful, and even when she saw earlier cuts of the film she was so supportive and she just really got it. I didn’t need to explain so much, she just understood on a visceral level the importance and the urgency of telling this story.
I’ve also been fortunate to have other EPs, Spike Lee who was my professor at NYU, and Spike Jonze who I met because I used to work at Vice. He was the creative director at the time. And Riz Ahmed, who is a dear friend who I’ve known for many, many years. All of these individuals are some of my cinema heroes. It made sense for them to come on board because they all understand what it is like to be “the other,” to be marginalized. Riz is Muslim, Spike Lee is a Black director, and Spike Jonze and Alma Ha’rel are Jewish. They all understand on a personal identity level what it’s like to be “the other.”
But it also makes me feel that this film is an invitation for everyone to tap in to how at times they can feel a struggle with their identity, and a struggle to find a sense of belonging, and place. And even a fragmentation of self.
What do you hope people see in your film?
I hope people see that this violence is unfortunately a part of our reality that we are desensitized to—it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and that there are human reasons why people make these terrible choices of finding community and purpose through extremist ideology. There’s hope in knowing that there are human grievances at the center, that these are people looking for love and home and consideration and that those are basic needs. That tells us that if we actually take care of each other in society, then we can live in a safer society. I really believe that. But we need to care. We need to take care of each other because if we don’t, then unfortunately people grab our attention in the worst way possible and make us notice them. That is too devastating of a cost to pay in my opinion.
What’s next for you?
Well, I think it’s best for me to stay a little quiet on that front. But there are a couple things I’m working on that I’m very excited about. I’m committed as always to telling the kind of stories that I feel are overlooked. Or finding a cinematic language to subvert stories that we aren’t used to experiencing in that way. I find a commitment sometimes to bringing a candle into the darkest corners of humanity and maybe transforming the dark into light, allowing us through film to alchemize things that we are afraid of facing. I’m also excited to broaden my horizons and explore other genres. I think that you can reach people’s hearts and minds through also comedy and joyful narratives as well. I’m just excited to keep growing and telling stories, hopefully in bold ways that are driven by a care for humanity.
Is there one thing you have learned as a filmmaker through this project that you would like to share with our readers, many of whom are aspiring filmmakers themselves?
Something I’ve learned is that if you decide you want to become a filmmaker, you need to really trust your instincts and keep going against all of the obstacles that come your way. Because there will be many. If you believe in your story and you believe in your vision and you find it to be worthwhile, then you should fight for it. It might be very difficult, but I believe it will change you and it can also change other people, whether it’s the people who are a part of your filmmaking team or the audience themselves. It’s a transformative experience and there’s this amazing quote that I read recently, which is, “if you want the rose, you must respect the thorn.” I think filmmaking sometimes can be a thorny marathon, and yet it’s worth it because you can receive the rose at the end.