sat 13/07/2024

You Resemble Me review - complex portrait of a troubled young woman | reviews, news & interviews

You Resemble Me review - complex portrait of a troubled young woman

You Resemble Me review - complex portrait of a troubled young woman

Egyptian-American journalist Dina Amer's directorial debut, drawn from life

Trying out different looks: Mouna Soualem as Hasna Aït Boulahcen

You Resemble Me is the very definition of a passion project, and all the better for it. First-time director Dina Amer was a journalist working for Vice News. She was sent to Paris to cover the 2015 terrorist attacks that left 130 people dead and hundreds more injured. Amer was on the scene when the police raided a flat where the terrorists were based.

A young woman who died in the explosion was widely proclaimed to be France’s first female suicide bomber.  

The news was filled with lurid tales about Hasna Aït Boulahcen, a daughter of Moroccan immigrants who had swapped partying, drug dealing and sex work for jihad. Amer, brought up in America by Egyptian émigré parents, went to meet Hasna’s mother, who agreed to talk to the journalist because she resembled her dead daughter. Amer’s interest intensified when it was revealed that Hasna had been more of a victim than a perpetrator. Investigation revealed that she’d been desperate to leave the flat and had not been wearing an explosive vest.

Originally hoping to make a documentary about who Hasna really was, Amer gained the trust of the family and her local community and recorded over 360 hours of interviews. But as she built up kaleidoscopic impressions of Hasna’s life, the director decided that a conventional documentary, combining interviews with archival imagery and actuality, could not capture the complex story as powerfully as drama.

With encouragement from her NYU film-school tutor Spike Lee she crafted a script with Omar Mullick (who also acted as cinematographer). The result is an intensely ambitious and almost wholly convincing drama about a troubled young woman struggling to find her place and identity in the world.

The first third of You Resemble Me focuses on Hasna’s turbulent childhood; two real-life sisters Lorenza and Ilonna Grimaudo (above) are superb as Hasna and her beloved younger sister Mariam. We meet them in the chaotic flat where they live with an older and younger brother and their violent mother who is struggling with poverty and her own mental health. She doesn’t even know it’s her daughter’s birthday. Hasna dresses her little sister in a pretty new dress identical to her own – cutting off the security tags. She fights with her mother who wants to sell the presents the siblings have found and the two girls take off into the city. Jumping the barriers in the Metro, they run through a street market where they can snatch food from stalls.

The Grimaudo girls are mesmerising in scenes reminiscent of The 400 Hundred Blows. Begging and sleeping rough, the girls squabble but their fierce attachment (born out of their resemblance to each other and dysfunctional mother) is all consuming. When they are caught by the authorities and sent to separate foster families, it’s devastating. The middle-class French family straighten Hasna’s curly hair and think it’s only polite that she eat roast pork at Christmas. It’s not a happy assimilation and Hasna longs for her sister and freedom. 

Fifty minutes in and the time frame has shifted. Mouna Soualem takes on the role of Hasna, now a young woman. We meet her dancing in a club where there are strippers; drug deals are going down and blow jobs are a currency. The friend who lets her sofa-surf in exchange for babysitting is growing weary; a job in a fast food restaurant goes horribly wrong. She’s intrigued when she spots her cousin, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, unseen since childhood. He's now a charismatic jihadi encouraging his You Tube followers to join him in Syria. Soon she’s exchanging messages with him, swapping her cowboy hat and sexy clothes for a burqa.  But is this just another persona Hasna is trying out to see if it fits? Yet another attempt to belong somewhere?

Soualem, magnificent in the role, is a chameleonic performer; warring emotions flicker across her face, her physicality imbues Hasna with an intense, tormented energy. But Amer, intrigued by the very differing accounts of Hasna from her research  - party girl or pious Muslim? - and with that remark echoing about her own resemblance to the dead girl, chooses to make the film more artful. Amer uses Deep Fake artifice to impose not only her own face but that of another actor (Sabrina Ouazani) in the middle of scenes where Mouna Soualem is playing  Hasna. If you’re not expecting it, it’s disconcerting. You question who exactly you’re seeing, what visual trick is being played. It’s hard to say whether this directorial choice, presumably partly designed to challenge preconceived notions of Muslim women’s identities in the West, is wholly effective. The Deep Fake multiplicity can seem a little too blatant in its messaging. It's a touch didactic, like the recurrence of  French symbols  (the Eiffel Tower, the Tricolore, statues of Marianne) that serve to highlight the gulf between Muslim immigrants and the Republic. But  putting these overt tendencies to drive her message home aside, the overall impression made by You Resemble Me is a powerful film told with heartfelt passion by an impressive new director. 

Amer uses disconcerting Deep Fake artifice


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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