You Resemble Me opens with an alarming image. A young girl leans over a highrise apartment balcony, her feet off the floor, evidently flirting with the idea of flinging herself headfirst onto the concrete far below – before she pulls herself back from the brink, and rejoins her family. This is little Hasna (Lorenza Grimaudo), and as Dina Amer’s feature debut tracks her life on the edge into adulthood, it is already clear from its very title that this is to be a film, at least in part, about identity and identification.
Initially that identification is between Hasna and her younger sister Mariam (Ilonna Grimaudo), who go about the Parisian streets together dressed in the same (stolen) dresses and looking, for all the two-year age difference between them, like twins, even as they regularly play a game where they insist to one another, “It’s you that looks like me!” or “It’s you who resembles me!” Treading on eggshells around their difficult, unloving mother Amina (Saná Sri), the two spend a lot of time away from their banlieue tenement, begging, stealing and sleeping rough. They are inseparable – until, that is, the authorities separate them and they are placed with different foster families.
Protective of her little sister to a fault, Hasna is drawn to those who stand up for themselves. Seeing a fellow Arab girl brutally beat down a white boy for openly cursing her family and religion, Hasna is soon openly imitating the girl’s words and moves, shadow-boxing aggressively before her sister, prompting little Mariam to comment, “You’re not right in the head.” Later, seeing a wide-brimmed hat at the markets, Hasna will mock-shoot into the air with finger-guns, telling Mariam: “When I grow up, I wanna be a cowboy. To kill everyone who wants to harm us.” Like all children, Hasna is trying on different identities to see which best fits – yet othered by her dysfunctional upbringing, by her sex, her class, her race, her religion, even her diet, she will struggle to acquire a sense of belonging, and will even, for all her love of cowboys and oaters, find herself constantly judged to be the wrong side of Western.
It is, though, her separation from her beloved sister that will have the most wrenching effect on Hasna’s already conflicted psyche. “If I don’t have you, I feel like I lose myself,” Hasna had told Mariam – and now, having to navigate her adolescence and early adulthood alone, she feels entirely adrift. As a young adult, Hasna (now played by Sabrina Ouazani) becomes lost to drink, drugs and a string of abusive men, and must contend with the label ‘whore’ sticking to her via a heavily gendered double standard. She seeks definition in work, even in the Army – but faced with one rejection after another, she finally finds purpose in the words of her cousin, Abdelhamid Abaaoud (Alexandre Gonin), and in the radical sense of Muslim brotherhood and sisterhood that he panders online.
“You don’t know all the women I have been,” Hasna tells Abdelhamid, the man she hopes will soon marry her and father her children. You Resemble Me occasionally offers a visual analogue for Hasna’s divided self by showing her appearing as multiple women (including Amer herself) all side by side in the one shot. In a sense, these moments crystallise the dissociative identity disorder – of a social as much as psychological kind – that afflicts Hasna, caught between cultural pressures that she is unable to reconcile. Apart from having a protagonist who is both female and French, Amer’s film bears a certain generic resemblance to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Niels Muller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) or Andrew Piddington’s The Killing of John Lennon (2006), all of which concern people who turn to radicalism as a simple, profoundly flawed solution to complex but nonetheless real problems.
While Hasna may ultimately, tragically resort to such measures, nobody would accuse You Resemble Me of oversimplifying anything. Amer has previously worked as a journalist, and while You Resemble Me is fictive, it is also a speculative reconstruction and dramatisation of a real person’s life which constantly rejects tabloid caricatures of its subject, preferring to show a more nuanced, messy character who is a repeat victim of circumstance while refusing ever to be victimised. Hasna’s multiplicity – and the literal splitting of her rôle between different actors – will be picked up and flipped near the end of the film as we see her image and identity becoming ever more confused and fragmented in news media determined to control, reduce and propagandise her story. While it could be argued that Amer and her co-writer Omar Mullick are doing something similar, their approach is, on the contrary, to complicate our understanding of this protagonist and her actions, and to bring understanding and empathy – even identification – to an increasingly trapped woman and her bad choices. It is a sensitive, sympathetic portrait of an Arab Muslim woman in a white Christian man’s world, and the strains that this alienation creates for her identity, ultimately pushing her over the edge.
Strap: Dina Amer’s dramatisation is a character portrait (beyond tabloid caricature) of an alienated Muslim woman in the Parisian projects
© Anton Bitel