Egyptian-American filmmaker Dina Amer talks about her feature debut “You Look Like Me”

DUBAI: “To be honest, I never thought this film would be screened in Saudi Arabia,” confesses Egyptian-American filmmaker Dina Amer. “For this film, which is about Islamic radicalization, to be seen and embraced in Saudi Arabia at its first film festival in my life was almost unbelievable. I felt like I was witnessing this cultural opening in Saudi Arabia and it makes me very proud as a Muslim woman because it gives me the impression that it will vibrate in the rest of the Muslim world and allow greater freedoms.

“You Resemble Me,” which had its Arabic premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival in December, is an adaptation of the life of Hasna Aït Boulahcen and an exploration of the roots of Islamic radicalization. A troubled young woman of Moroccan descent, Boulahcen hails from an underprivileged suburb of Paris and has endured poverty and abuse throughout her short life. She died with her cousin Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the ringleaders of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, during a police raid in Saint-Denis.

Dina Amer, director of You Look Like Me (You Look Like Me). (Photo credit: Kevin Scanlon)

Such is the sensitivity of the film’s subject matter that, despite positive reviews, Amer was nervous ahead of the film’s regional debut in Jeddah.

“I was very worried because it’s the other polarity,” she says. “In the West, some people might be offended that I even dare to make a film that ‘humanizes a terrorist’. And during that time, she never detonated a bomb and she never killed anyone. That was fake news. But here there could be a backlash like, ‘Well, don’t even touch our religion, don’t even meddle in anything to do with our faith, because it’s too sensitive, it’s too delicate.”

“But people came up to me after the movie and said, ‘Thank you so much, I feel inspired to someday make a movie or write a screenplay. That’s the power of film and storytelling,” she continues. “It can actually inspire others to say ‘I want to do this too, I have a story to tell.’ And I feel like the power of art is that it offers the possibility of transformation, of healing, of catharsis – for yourself and for an audience.

“You Look Like Me” had its Arabic premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival in December. (Provided)

“You Look Like Me” had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival last September and stars Mouna Soualem and Sabrina Ouazani. Even Amer herself appears as a version of Boulahcen, with three actors portraying the adult Hasna at different points in the film. Such is its emotional intensity that Amer’s directorial debut garnered support from a host of executive producers, including Spike Lee and Riz Ahmed, and won the Audience Award at the Red Sea International Film Festival.

One of the most striking aspects of the film, however, is the performance of the two girls who play Hasna and her sister Mariam when they were children. Played by sisters Lorenza Grimaudo and Ilonna Grimaudo respectively, they have a raw energy that is mesmerizing to watch.

“I was very lucky to meet them from the first day of casting,” Amer recalls. “They were the last kids to show up and I knew straight away they were my kids. Because they’re neighborhood kids, you know what I mean? They have this kinetic energy and there’s a deep love between them. They lost their father at a young age and so they understand tragedy and they also understand perseverance. They are like young warriors.

“You Look Like Me” stars Mouna Soualem and Sabrina Ouazani. (Provided)

Amer worked with them extensively during rehearsals, helping to channel their natural talent. “For me, these two sisters are the real Mariam and Hasna of today’s France: they are young, they are sisters, they love each other, they have incredible talent. But will France really make use of their talent? Will they be cast in other projects or will they be told, ‘No, you’re not quite what we’re looking for. Not quite in this industry? It would be a shame for France because, internationally, the only unifying comment is “Who are these children?”

Amer didn’t choose to tell Boulahcen’s story, he chose it, she says. As a journalist working for Vice News, she arrived in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis hours after the explosion that killed Boulahcen. Covering the story live on the air, she, like everyone else, reported that Boulahcen was Europe’s first female suicide bomber – information later proven to be false. Amer felt so bad that she went in search of Boulahcen’s mother, eventually getting the only interview she would give.

Amer co-wrote the film with Omar Mullick after more than 300 hours of taped interviews with Hasna’s family and friends. (Provided)

“She said I reminded her of her daughter,” says Amer, who co-wrote the film with Omar Mullick after more than 300 hours of taped interviews with Hasna’s family and friends. “And she showed me a picture of Hasna as a child and said, ‘That’s my kid, that’s my daughter, not the woman with the niqab who looks scary on the news and is called terrorist.’ The family kept saying “You remind us of Hasna”, and I started to see similarities and parallels with this woman. I understood what it is, to a lesser extent, but there are the same internal conflict that I share with Hasna, namely: how, as a Muslim woman living in the West, reconcile my identity?

“I’m proud to be a Muslim. I was also born and raised in the United States and heavily influenced by Western culture. But I’m also Egyptian. There are these pieces and sometimes they seem contradictory, because you are told that you can’t be a Muslim and modern. Or being a Muslim in the West, how can I find myself there as a woman and feel emancipated? So it’s a tricky thing to go through and, at the end of the day, account, when you’re unable to reconcile your identity as a third-culture kid, I feel like that leads to that devastating title in some cases. So I could relate. I spent all my life to walk away from people like Hasna and feel like these people are a disgrace to us; they don’t belong to us. They descend in all glory saying “We are Muslims” and they tarnish our identity, you know? And we have to walk around saying “No, Islam is a peace ligion” and all the rest.

It wasn’t until Amer spent time at Rikers Island, one of the largest prisons in the United States, that she began to realize she couldn’t define people by their worst deeds. She also realized that every human being is worthy of redemption.

“I love this statement that as soon as you know someone’s story and where they’re from, you fall in love with them, because you can see yourself in them,” Amer says. “I don’t believe that people are born purely evil. I believe that things happen to people and that even if we are not there to justify, we cannot afford not to understand. Because we reap the repercussions of not understanding.

James C. Tibbs