“Tu me ressembles is an excellent film by a young director who wants to tell real stories and knows how to do it.”
“Allons enfants de la patrie.” As Tu me ressembles (You Resemble Me) opens we hear the French national anthem, sung by a child voice, accompanied by typical French imagery. Soon enough though, the lyrics change, and so do the images, both turning grim and violent, with the archive footage displaying France’s atrocities in the past, both in its colonies as well as on home turf. The tone is set. For the rest of its duration Egyptian director Dina Amer’s debut film is highly critical of France, as she tracks a young girl’s route from the banlieues to the Bataclan, arguing that the country had some part to play in creating the religious extremism that led to attacks like the one in November 2015. But most of all Amer, a prize-winning journalist and producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square, wants to set the story straight on Hasna Aït Boulahcen, a woman who was killed when police attempted a raid on an apartment they suspected to house Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind behind the gruesome terrorist act.
Hasna (an exceptional child performance by Lorenza Grimaudo) is one of three children in a single-parent household living in a Paris suburb. Of Moroccan descent, Hasna and her sister Myriam are inseparable. Streetwise by necessity, the young girls are mostly left to their own devices while their mother is off at work. Tension between Hasna and her mother leads to the two girls running away from home and eventually falling under the care of social services. They are split up, and Hasna is adopted by a white middle-class family.
Fast forward a decade and a half. Hasna (an equally strong performance by Mouna Soualem) hangs out in clubs getting wasted while trying to sell drugs to clubbers. Life hasn’t treated her well, but in a way she carved out a spot for herself, even if it means fending off unwanted sexual attention and the occasional bloody nose that comes with it. At times she imagines herself more beautiful and tough, and most of all more confident. Trying to clean up her act is hard, with her party girl reputation coming back to haunt her and making it impossible for her to find a steady job. Then one day her cousin Abdelhamid is on the news in a report about terrorist recruitment. Hasna, vulnerable, reaches out to him, and so begins her slide into religious extremism.
Everybody in life is responsible for their own choices, but Tu me ressembles shows that being at wits’ end can influence those choices for the worse. Hasna Aït Boulahcen was as much a product of her (lack of) upbringing as she was of a system that let her down from a young age. Amer carefully tries to stay away from the easy ‘difficult childhood’ excuse though, showing Hasna more as a young woman that wanted to fit in but never could because French society didn’t truly accept her. Tu me ressembles is not a sob story about a self-proclaimed jihadi, but a portrait of somebody who is never really part of French society because French society won’t let her in.
Amer gets this across with very simple visual markers. Easily recognizable French landmarks like the Eiffel Tower are often somewhere in the frame, but always in the distance, almost like a mirage for Hasna, a France that is close for her yet so far away. There are other moments Amer lets the camerawork and editing go along with the content. In the film’s opening act centered around young Hasna and her sister, the flitting handheld camera and frantic editing mimic the bouncing-off-the-walls attitude of the girls. As Hasna gets older these aspects calm down, but like her story the lighting gets darker.
Whether everybody will like that story is another matter. French audiences for instance might not take too well to it, given how it pokes into a fresh wound on the national psyche. Tu me ressembles is certainly a film with an opinion. Hopefully it can be a starting point for a discussion on how Western society treats its Muslim citizens, and how Muslim citizens can fit into a Western society. But from a purely cinematic viewpoint Tu me ressembles is an excellent film by a young director who wants to tell real stories and knows how to do it.