There’s a growing body of films set against the low-income, immigrant-heavy banlieues of Paris’s exurbs, with highlights ranging from Matthieu Kassovitz’s landmark 1996 film Hate (La Haine) to Céline Sciamma’s 2014 Girlhood (Bande de Filles), Ladj Ly’s 2019 Les Misérables and 2020’s Cuties (Mignonnes, which sparked a misguided Netflix boycott). All of these films have, not coincidentally, been invited to top festivals and earned solid reviews. You Resemble Me (Tu Me Ressembles) adds to the roster, and takes a standard trope – at-risk youth slipping into troubling behavior – one step further: its traumatized protagonist finds herself drawn to radical Islam via a smooth-talking cousin already wanted in connection to terrorism.
The film’s director, former Vice News reporter Dina Amer, co-wrote the script based on her own journalistic investigation into the real-life case of a woman, Hasna Aït Boulahcen, who was accused of carrying out a suicide bombing following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Details about her life were widely reported, though news stations broadcast three different women’s photos believed to be Hasna. Ultimately it turned out she did not set off the bomb and may even have been a victim herself.
Amer’s script takes us through Hasna’s life, attempting to convey how a young girl can be mistreated to such an extent that she carries that trauma and lack of a clear identity into adulthood. We see Hasna and her beloved younger sister Mariam running away from an abusive mother. When they are picked up by protective services and sent to foster homes, they are separated. That rupture of such a close bond (the girls define themselves in relation to each other, hence the title of the film) is something Hasna never seems to overcome. When we flash forward to her adulthood, we see she is in a lot of trouble, dealing drugs, giving sexual favors, working menial jobs and living off the generosity of friends.
This background sets the stage for her reencounter with a long-lost cousin, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. She spots him on TV when his photo is broadcast as wanted for recruiting terrorists. They begin an online conversation and his descriptions of a forgiving God and promises of “paradise” offer her, finally, a way out of her troubles and a purpose in life. Among other tactics, Abaaoud puts out videos on social media identifying with others with dual identities, talking about never feeling fully European nor fully Arab. This is a theme in the film, picked up in several small and large moments, including an African French rap group on television memorably chanting, “I’ll fuck France until she loves me.”
The film is best in its first third, following the two young sisters as they laugh and play and take care of each other. Handheld camerawork infuses the sequences with the feeling of being there and being constantly in motion. Even then, there are hints that Hasna is different – tougher than her siblings, who are all abused physically and/or emotionally by their mother, and willing to take sometimes unnecessary risks. The film opens on her standing on a balcony and leaning just a bit too far over the railing. When she steps down to walk away, she spits over the edge on the men loitering below.
The middle section of the film, when Hasna is a young adult, is tough to watch and a bit disjointed. A lot happens and little is explained. Most scenes take place at night. Amer’s decision to use three different actresses to portray adult Hasna, presumably stemming from the real-life confusion over her identity following her death, is very confusing for viewers of the film, especially if you go into it not knowing the reason behind the device. Some scenes are quite moving, like when she tries to get a job with the French army, unprepared for the interview but convinced her hard-knock life has prepared her to protect others.
The final third of the movie begins with Hasna’s reconnecting with her cousin and incipient radicalization. Here, Amer begins weaving in archival footage of the various attacks on Paris, from the 2015 slaughter at the offices of newsmagazine Charlie Hebdo to the coordinated attacks across the city in November of the same year. Hasna is ultimately portrayed as a victim, lured into a relationship with her charismatic cousin (when they first spot him on TV, a person in the room with Hasna shouts, “He’s on international news – he’s a star!”) and in the wrong place at the wrong time when the police raided the apartment where they were hiding out in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis.
The film closes with documentary footage of people close to Hasna, including her sister and parents, talking about her life and death. Amer is said to have turned down studio offers to back this project in order to maintain the creative freedom she wanted to make this combination of fiction, reenactment and documentary. She got production backing from the likes of Spike Lee and Spike Jonze. It’s a compelling watch, though the experimental blend doesn’t entirely work. But Hasna’s story is one that will stay with you, especially some of its visual snapshots, like the young sisters running around Paris in matching dresses or adult Hasna posing for selfies in full burka.
This review originally ran on The Alliance of Women Film Journalists.