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'You Resemble Me' director talks new film

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Europe's first female suicide bomber. That was what the media called Hasna Ait Boulahcen after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people across the city and hurt hundreds more. Police said she had blown herself up as they closed in on the apartment where the attackers were hiding. Then days later, they said they'd been wrong about Hasna. She'd been involved with the terrorist attackers, but had not blown herself up. Someone else in the apartment had done that. Still, the media obsessed over what had led a young Moroccan woman raised in Paris to radicalization. And that is the question at the heart of Dina Amer's directorial debut, "You Resemble Me." Her movie tells the story of Hasna's upbringing in an unstable family and in French society that isolated her. Dina Amer is here to talk about her film. Welcome.

DINA AMER: Thank you. It's a supreme pleasure to be speaking with you guys.

FLORIDO: I've got to say that your movie is so compelling, and it paints such a human picture of this young woman who, to most of the world, was just a terrorist or, at best, a terrorist sympathizer. And I bet not everyone would agree that Hasna Ait Boulahcen should be humanized the way that you tried to do in your movie. So why did you make this movie about her?

AMER: You know, for me, it's not about humanizing a woman who was falsely accused of being a terrorist and, you know, being the first female suicide bomber of Europe. It's about actually having the courage to look at the most painful things in our society that are begging for us to look at the root of of violence happen, and who are the human beings behind these headlines? And if not for the sake of just our humanity and the fact that factually she is a human being, then for the sake of national security, it's a necessity to look deeper and to understand the reasons why someone would decide to opt out of our society and feel like they would find their greatest salvation in identity through a radical organization.

FLORIDO: Well, in the movie, Hasna grows up in a poor family in an immigrant suburb of Paris. Her mom kicks her and her sister out of the house as children. They get placed into separate foster homes. And that separation traumatizes her. And it sort of leaves her alone to navigate a French society that is, frankly, deeply prejudiced against Arabs and immigrants. Was that the turning point that you saw for Hasna?

AMER: You know, I think that, you know, whether it's school shootings here in America or, you know, so-called pseudo Islamic terrorist operations, we - sending thoughts or prayers or just demonizing the person who pulls the trigger isn't helping us progress as a society. Every time you try to peg radicalization to an issue, whether it be like lack of education or unemployment or a broken family or poverty, you find someone who didn't struggle with any of these issues and still radicalized. But the one common denominator is a shattered sense of self, someone who is desperately looking for a sense of direction, community, belonging and purpose.

And what's most tragic about that is that that's the very same individual who, given the right opportunity in society, could contribute so much. That's what's so heartbreaking. Hasna wanted to join the military. She wanted to join the police force. She could have died for France. But instead, when she was rejected from both, she found herself going online, searching, searching where she could put her sense of courage and her desperation for purpose into another kind of organization where she felt she could serve.

FLORIDO: You know, one of my favorite sequences in the movie is when we see Hasna beginning to experiment with Muslim head coverings and eventually becoming really enamored with the burqa, covering herself from head to toe, exposing just her eyes. She's not radicalized yet, but then one day, walking down the street, she gets stopped by an officer because Paris has an ordinance prohibiting the burqa.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOU RESEMBLE ME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken)

FLORIDO: As a viewer, it's such an infuriating scene because it's so blatantly discriminatory for one, but also because you see how this kind of rejection can contribute to pushing people closer to the edge. I know you've said there aren't any singular turning points, but this felt like another one.

AMER: Absolutely. I mean, it is kind of appalling that today women who wear the hijab in France are discriminated against really viciously. The burqa is banned. And it's really shocking in a country that claims to be, you know, this bastion of freedom and liberty, if that's the spirit of France, and it should be the full spectrum of freedom. You know, I think it's important also to kind of reframe, like, Hasna isn't Moroccan. She's French. She's born and raised in France and second generation born to France.

And yet what we see in France is second, third generation, you know, children whose parents or grandparents emigrated from former colonies and who feel so excluded from society that they almost wear their parents' heritage so visibly as an act of protest, like saying, OK, fine, you claim that I'm a French citizen and I have equal opportunities to anybody else in this country, but yet because of my name and my postcode and the color of my skin, I'm not given those same opportunities. At the end of the day, if it's a false promise, then I'm just going to be everything you hate. So it's really an act of protest that Hasna would wear the burqa when her mother never did.

FLORIDO: You had three different actors playing Hasna, all during the same period of her life. You are one of them. You play Hasna in this movie. And yet this movie is so fast paced that it wasn't until looking at the credits that I realized that there were three different actors. I was looking at pictures of all three of you after I watched the movie, and you don't look terribly similar. So I'm wondering why you did that.

AMER: So the reason why I cast three women is because the news had published three images for Hasna and published them and said, this is, you know, three different women. One was really Hasna. One was her sister, Myriam, who was estranged. And the third was a Moroccan woman who wasn't even in France. And there was never really the correction that it deserved because Hasna was on the wrong side and because those women are Arab Muslim women. And so, you know, maybe they're not given the same kind of consideration had they been white women whose lives would be destroyed for being kind of caught up in this terrible, violent headline.

And so I wanted to use the fiction of the news and flip it on its head and allow three women to step into Hasna's shoes to give us a glimpse into who she tried to become, who she could have become, and to really also underline that the main issue of why people get radicalized into these groups to begin with is because they don't know who they are. They're struggling with their sense of self, and that they're shapeshifting in order to find connection, and that this latest iteration of who they are is an attempt to forge a sense of greatness and purpose to become someone else.

FLORIDO: You're Egyptian American. You have a foot in U.S. society and in Arab society. And I think a lot of Americans tend to think of this kind of radicalization that has now found herself lured into as the sort of thing that happens, you know, over there, not here. And I wonder what you see.

AMER: I mean, we don't have to look far. You know, we're both in the U.S. right now. Mass shootings are a part of American culture. I feel less safe in the U.S. than I do just about any other country right now in the world. There's so much division. And there's so much brainwashing online. And I think that "You Resemble Me" speaks to that universal grievance of the fact that there is a mental health issue. People are more isolated today because of the pandemic than ever before. Young people are inundated with violence. They are finding a sense of legitimacy or purpose through picking up a gun. And they're opting out of our so-called society where people feel like they can contribute. And those are the questions that we are left with. How can we do our part so that young people aren't leaving our societies and deciding to pick up a gun and to aim it at us?

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with Dina Amer, who directed the film "You Resemble Me." Her film is currently being shown at film festivals and will be available on streaming later this summer. Dina Amer, thanks so much for joining us.

AMER: Thank you so much, Adrian. It was lovely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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