Filming for Redemption: An Interview with Dina Amer

How a journalist-turned-filmmaker came to retell the story of the woman she once inadvertently smeared as a suicide bomber

Filming for Redemption: An Interview with Dina Amer
A still image from the film “You Resemble Me” by Dina Amer. (You Resemble Me)

The first time that writer-director Dina Amer told the story of Hasna Ait Boulahcen, she was a foreign correspondent for Vice News. It was the fall of 2015, and the Islamic State group was at the height of its power, having seized vast swaths of Syria and Iraq for its so-called caliphate. After a series of coordinated attacks in a northern suburb of Paris left 130 people dead, reporters like Amer scrambled to gather details that could shed light on the perpetrators of the tragedy. An extensive manhunt led France’s elite counterterrorism unit to an apartment building in Saint-Denis, where they exchanged heavy gunfire with suspects until a suicide belt was detonated on an upper floor. From the rubble, the authorities recovered the bodies of two men and a woman, the latter of whom they believed to have set off the explosive device.

Reporters in almost every major news outlet wrote of “Europe’s first female suicide bomber,” a Moroccan-French woman named Hasna Boulahcen who had been radicalized by her cousin, one of the masterminds behind the attacks. This soon turned out to be false: Further investigation revealed it was one of the male suspects, not Hasna, who had set off the bomb. But by then it was too late. Photos of Boulahcen had flooded the internet. A picture of her sister also circulated online, adding further to the inaccuracy. In their rush to get the story out, one member of the press had confused the two women, who resembled one another.

While the rest of the journalistic community quickly moved on from the blunder — some modifying their articles, others deeming the detail unworthy of correction — Amer could not. Haunted by her complicity in slandering the deceased woman before the world, she began to listen to the questions that were nagging at her. Who was Hasna Ait Boulahcen really? Why was she in the apartment building with those men? What events led to the moment that ended her life?

Amer visited the home of Boulahcen’s mother, who had abandoned her children when they were young, forcing them to grow up apart in various foster homes. At the threshold of her flat, the mother scrutinized the former journalist and told her she resembled her daughter Hasna. Amer recalls this as the moment when she began her seven-year filmmaking journey, which would see her record hundreds of hours of interviews with Boulahcen’s friends and family, and eventually write a script inspired by the events of Hasna’s life.

The result is “You Resemble Me,” Amer’s powerful directorial debut, which won the Audience Award at the Red Sea Festival and an unprecedented four awards at REC Tarragona. In it, we witness every stage of Boulahcen’s life, from a childhood of playing with her sister in the slums of Paris to a lonely adulthood in which she struggled with alcoholism and homelessness. Throughout the film, Amer asks us not to look away as Boulahcen fights to meld the pieces of her fragmented identity and find purpose in a world that always seems to box her out. “You Resemble Me” is a probing look into the conditions that lead to radicalization and a test of our empathy for individuals who, long before they resort to senseless violence, aspire to live a life not too different from our own.

New Lines sat down for an interview with Dina Amer, the film’s writer and director.

How did you become interested in film?

I grew up loving cinema. Especially my parents, as Egyptian immigrants, used to always put on black and white Egyptian films, and those were really such a transportive and necessary connection that I had, both to storytelling and to my mother country. I fell in love with the power of creating a world through the screen and being, like, emotionally connected to complicated characters.

Your entry point to the character of Hasna in the film was through your previous work as a journalist, covering the attack on the Bataclan [theater] for Vice News. That experience ultimately led to your decision to leave journalism because you felt the industry didn’t do the story justice. How does journalism fail these stories?

Journalism, especially in the space of reporting on the “Islamic terror story,” failed miserably and actually was very fictitious and sensational. There’s very noble journalism that happens and people who are telling important stories, but personally, I didn’t feel like I wanted to deploy that machine anymore, because I wasn’t proud of the work I was doing all the time. And I also felt like it was very reductionist. I worked at The New York Times and, you know, these big news corporations, and there is a worldview that is upheld. And it can be quite selective and subjective as to which sound bites matter and as to what the truth is.

And so I felt very exhausted and challenged by that kind of restriction and the formation of language that made terrorism synonymous with Islam, you know — [the term] jihad solely now meaning terrorism, just being stripped of its full essence — which [means] that the deepest war is actually between you and your ego. I’m a sensitive person, and human connection, I feel, is almost a point of oxygen for us as human beings, and it just didn’t feel good in my body to continue to roam from one place of concentrated trauma and pain to the next and just kind of extract it and throw it out into the world through a news cycle. It didn’t feel deep enough for me.

I’m wondering how, despite that, your journalism background informed the filmmaking process.

I did over 360 hours of interviews, and that was the bedrock of source material that formed the scriptwriting. So all the circumstances in the film are accurate, real-life situations that [Hasna] faced. I feel like the film was my act of redemption as a former journalist. I wanted to [emphasize] the gray [areas] and the complexity and choose an unlikely candidate to create intimacy with the audience — someone who had been thrown away and dehumanized by the news. She was abused by the new[s] cycle, right? She was called the first European female suicide bomber, and that headline traveled the world. It wasn’t true. It was fake. So I just felt like I was trying to kind of undo the sins of the media that had been committed against this woman and against, you know, my community as a Muslim woman.

What got you interested in understanding the roots of Islamic terrorism in the West?

It all started with this viral video I saw after the Charlie Hebdo attacks [earlier in the same year, 2015], this footage of the two brothers who committed the attacks. The names are Sharif and Seiko. They leave the office, after the killing, in a getaway car. There’s a police car that’s parked, full of officers, but they’re too afraid to stop these men. They don’t have the same kinds of weapons. And so as the brothers are driving off, a lone officer jumps out of the car and starts shooting at the getaway car and one of the gunmen is driving, and his younger brother gets out and shoots the cop in the leg. And then he runs up to finish him off and as he gets closer to him and he sees his face, he stops in his tracks because he realizes, “Holy shit, I know this man. This man is from my community.” But no one had ever known that he was a cop. You know, this cop had convinced everyone that he worked in construction.

I see a mirror between these two men and I see the ways that the construction of terrorism is deeper than race or religion but existential. And I’m fascinated, somewhat obsessed and possessed by that image, and I want to understand urgently, like, who are they beneath their uniforms and who were they as little boys, and how many degrees of separation really exist between them? And that’s really what sent me down the rabbit hole.

I want to talk about this idea of resemblance that weaves through the film. The most explicit form of resemblance, of course, is between Hasna and her sister Myriam as children, wearing the same outfit and doing everything together. But you also talk about how when you met Hasna’s mother, she told you that you looked like her daughter. And I also wonder if there isn’t another element, whereby the audience is asked what of themselves they might see in Hasna.

Everything [sprang] from that point when her mother said that I resembled her daughter, who she had abandoned and who I had reported on falsely in the news. Everything came from that circumstance of, wow, I’m like this woman for whom I helped perpetuate this false narrative that she’s this dehumanized monster. And then when I met Myriam, and I heard her stories about how, when they were younger, they were considered like twins, and they’d run around in these [matching] dresses. And they really were almost like the same person. They were home to each other. I was like, wow, it is fascinating how people can be so similar and then go down very different lanes of identity, only to unite in this tragedy through this false characterization of the media.

And then the ultimate mission of the film is to get the audience to see themselves in her. For most of humanity, there’s maybe an immediate jolt of, like: well, I’m not like her — like, she’s a crazy person or, you know, a violent person — and my invitation is actually to inhabit this woman’s world and to be in her shoes and under her skin and to understand that there’s complexity and that, whether we like it or not, she is actually a human being.

You grew up in the United States, but this film was shot entirely in France, a country with a different history of socially marginalizing Muslims, a place where you’re not a native speaker of the language. How did you navigate that?

I was really driven by a sense of mission and urgency, so I kind of just bulldozed past my fears. People thankfully trusted me — the most important people trusted me — the people that this film was about, the community and the family. They opened their homes and shared their stories and let me film them, and I also put in the time. It took over seven years to make this film. So I think, you know, there was this evidence that I wasn’t coming in there to just do something exploit[at]ive, extractive. I really wanted to understand.

This was not out of my depth. This film is so personal, even though I’m not French directly. My ancestors were colonized by the French, so I’ve inherited a similar kind of intergenerational trauma of being colonized and, because of that, my identity is all mixed up right here in the U.S. I neither fit in there, in the Middle East, [nor] here, so it felt like something that even on a personal, evolutionary level I had to do.

You had a $5 million deal with Amazon to make a documentary about Hasna’s life, but you left it on the table because you felt the story was better represented as a fictional film based on her life, rather than a set of interviews with people who knew her. Walking away from that much money is tough, but you were determined to make the film, because it felt “personal.” What did you ultimately learn by doing that?

I think one of the greatest experiences in life is when you become pregnant with this passion and with this — with a drive to complete a mission. And it’s not usually logical or rational. It’s deeply instinctual and, in those situations, you become blind sometimes to the obstacles. You just feel like your life depends on doing this — like your whole sense of existence becomes entangled with going down that rabbit hole and exploring it, because there’s something within you that understands that it will be transformative.

So I think that’s the only way that I can explain this film. I think it came to me; I think stories choose people. I think Hasna chose me, in a way, and I think that it’s because I do resemble her in some way. I think many of the wounds that she struggled with were association and trauma and shape-shifting and the feeling that she didn’t belong anywhere. Those wounds led to her death, but, by making this film, she kind of gifted me with the opportunity to heal some of those issues, you know, and to not be defined by them — and to hopefully invite other people, through watching the film, to maybe explore their own dissociative nature and the harm of it.

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