A devastating portrayal of how personal trauma and social alienation can lead to national tragedy, “You Resemble Me” attempts to look beyond the sensationalized headlines to find the humanity in Hasna Aït Boulahcen. As a journalist for Vice, director Dina Amer reported on the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015 and was on the scene when the attack’s mastermind, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, died with Hasna in an explosion as police closed in. Like many at the time, Amer reported that Hasna was Europe’s first female suicide bomber and tabloids soon trumpeted salacious details from Hasna’s life, that she was a drug-loving party girl, known around town as the “cowgirl.” Yet days later, audio emerged of Hasna pleading to leave moments before her death, raising doubts about her agency and culpability. Amer, herself a Muslim woman living in the West, set out to learn who Hasna was, conducting 300 hours of interviews with family and friends and turning those into this narrative film.
The film’s first third details Hasna’s young life, when she was inseparable from her younger sister Mariam on the streets of Paris. Their mother is checked-out and abusive, stealing Mariam’s birthday presents for resale. Hasna tries to protect Mariam, but her efforts lead to the family’s breakup when social services take the children and place them in separate homes, a guilt that Hasna never shakes. Hasna clashes with her foster family’s attempt to make her French and ends up on the streets again, subject to even worse abuse. Later in life, like many young adults, Hasna attempts to find fulfillment in sex and partying, but she is still taken advantage of and her mother’s voice rings in her ear, calling her a ‘whore.’ Mariam won’t take her calls and Hasna feels adrift and isolated from any real sense of belonging. She even attempts to join the army, explaining she wants to protect people, invoking the moment she defended Mariam from their mother.
Yet that attempt at legitimacy becomes another insult when her Westernized Arab interviewer complains that people like her make it more difficult for people like him. When the Charlie Hebdo attacks take place, she’s first alienated by the French response, which she sees as phony, and then shocked and a little excited to see her cousin on TV in fatigues. Her childhood friend, whom she calls “Flip-flop,” is now recruiting people to come to fight in Syria for spiritual fulfillment. She begins chatting online with him, feeling understood for the first time, thinking the connection is a lifeline, even though it will soon lead to her death.
The question of identity surfaces in the film again and again. Mariam’s absence in Hasna’s life is not just emotionally painful, but mentally destabilizing; without their sisterhood, Hasna feels a piece of herself missing. Her cousin correctly diagnoses that she feels schizophrenic in France, belonging neither to the Arab or the Western world. Amer dramatizes this fragmentation by letting different actors, including herself, play Hasna in certain moments. On the occasion of fleeing her first foster family, who also assail her identity by straightening her hair and making her eat pork, she finds a cowboy hat and claims it as a symbol of her individuality. She loves the moral simplicity of Westerns and delights in acting like a cowboy so she can “shoot all the bad guys.” While some of her anger and dissociation directly result from being a Muslim woman, her adoption of this most Western of symbols is heavily ironic and points to the extent to which her alienation is not something foreign, but something deeply familiar to any Westerner who has lived in the age of online radicalization and mass shootings.
Indeed, her rhetoric even recalls the patron saint of cinematic alienation, Travis Bickle, who also channels protective urges into fantasies of cleansing violence. But unlike Bickle, she doesn’t pull the trigger herself, instead, she symbolically leaves behind her cowboy hat as she definitely leaves behind her old life and sets off, in hijab, to marry her cousin. Even at this final moment of decision, she frames her choice not in anger, but as a search for normality – she tells her friend driving her that she wants a chance at her own family, her own house, and this is the only way forward she sees.
When Hasna’s story concludes, the audience is left wondering if this tragedy was all grimly preordained. The film’s epilogue is a counterfactual gut-punch to this idea, showing us the real Mariam as she lays flowers on a Bataclan memorial and reflects on her choice to cut Hasna out of her life, along with her own uneasy sense of belonging in France. “You Resemble Me” is a challenging film that tests the limits of empathy, but one whose lessons are ignored at our own peril. [A-]