“We are Proving the Market Wrong and Hopefully Inspiring Other Filmmakers”: Writer/Director Dina Amer on Bringing You Resemble Me to Screen
It’s been nearly seven years since I embarked on the journey of my directorial debut, You Resemble Me. It has been a thorny and steep hill to climb. My film is about a woman caught in the center of a terrorist attack, notorious after being named the first female suicide bomber in Europe. I’m a Muslim Egyptian American–not a fluent French speaker–and yet I found myself drawn to a story, at once delicate and destructive, one with roots buried deep in French soil, layers of history — of, for many, injury — that are still raw. The decision to make the film was not rational. It was instinctive. It was not a choice but rather a necessity.
The journey kicked off in the winter of 2015. As a recovering journalist–on a scholarship–I had enrolled in NYU for a master’s program in film. I had built a career working at CNN, the New York Times, Vice News. I had left utterly disenchanted by the news cycle. I could no longer tell stories in that form. Spike Lee was my professor.
I remember scheduling any office hours I could. I wanted him to read the early drafts of a script I was writing. The script was inspired by a viral video I saw on the news of a confrontation between a cop and gunman outside the Paris offices of the satiric publication, Charlie Hebdo. In the video, it was evident that the gunman recognized the cop as someone from his community. The cop’s neighbors and friends were under the impression that he worked in construction, and he would change into his police uniform everyday in a bathroom in Paris. The gunman, Cherif, wanted to be a professional soccer player, an actor. Yet this time, he captured the world’s attention through this violent act. I remember the first time Spike read my script. It was short. He turned the script over and said, “Allahu Akbar. Boom!” He was very encouraging. When I eventually dropped out to go make the film, he maintained his support. Spike would eventually come on as an Executive Producer as the journey continued and intensified.
I went to Paris thinking I was going to tell one story only to fall into another. 10 months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks another set of attacks rocked Paris. This time there were multiple attack sites. One hundred and 30 people were killed. I found myself at the scene of the attacks reporting for Vice News on air. The mastermind of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abbaoude, a Belgian native, was reported to be in a hideout in Saint Denis, a suburb of Paris. His reported girlfriend/cousin Hasna Ait Boulachen had found the hideout. There was an extensive police raid closing in on the abandoned apartment they were hiding in. Hasna was on the balcony screaming for dear life, yelling, “Help, let me jump!” To which the police said, “Where’s your boyfriend?” “He’s not my boyfriend,” she replied. Then suddenly a bomb went off, and Hasna was crowned by every single news network the first female suicide bomber of Europe.
I reported on the air for Vice this news that flung Hasna, a girl who had previously been known as the Cowgirl of the hood onto the world stage. Hasna’s story eclipsed the Charlie Hebdo story of the cop and gunman. I could feel an invisible thread linking these two seemingly separate attacks in my bones. Hasna had radicalized in a very short amount of time. She had been inspired by the media machine which in some way legitimized the actions of the Charlie Hebdo gunman by awarding them so much air time and essentially proving that by pulling the trigger, you could stop the world and make everyone look at you. The caveat being that you had to pull the trigger on people deemed significant and powerful.
A few days later the police confirmed it could not have been Hasna who set off the bomb. Her encounter with the police had gone fully viral. It raised questions. Was she in fact trying to leave this terrible situation before it was too late? I felt so guilty — I had contributed towards a fake news headline. I found her mother in Aulnay Sous Bois, one of the toughest neighborhoods in the outskirts of Paris. She had rejected every journalist and filmmaker that had approached her. She let me through their apartment door because she said, “You resemble my daughter.” You walk like Hasna and you laugh like her,” she went on to tell me. “You’re also kind and naive. Like she was.”
I went into this rabbithole that was Hasna’s life. I wanted to understand who this woman was through this mirror of reflection between Hasna and I. That then extended to becoming the film’s mission: to allow the audience to see their own humanity and vulnerability reflected in a woman deemed a monster.
I went back to New York. My producers and I pitched the project to a major studio. They offered me a multi-million dollar deal. I put a dream team together consisting of my all-time favorite editor and co-writer — renowned artists with far more experience who I was so excited about collaborating with. I was starting to feel like all the hard work, the couches I had slept on, the work and time necessary to gain the trust of the family, the convincing I had done to inspire people to join me in filming the research/documentary material, was all starting to pay off.
At the final hour after we had spent months negotiating our contracts, the deal fell apart. I left the deal because the studio at the time decided they wanted to contractually define how much fiction was in the project, and they wanted me to do re-enactments instead.
Everyone thought I was crazy for leaving that deal. They thought I was either self sabotaging or naive. I had a bird in the hand, a major deal. This might be the only shot I had at telling this story. Why wasn’t I thinking about my career? Personally, I couldn’t even consider just taking the deal and making it work. It was deeply instinctual. I felt the story deserved better. I wanted to make something I was proud of. I simply couldn’t compromise on the ways I wanted to tell this story and to just “think about the next project.”
Spike Lee was the only person in my ear who told me, “Pray on it. And if it’s not the film you wanna make, walk away.” I’m grateful to him to this day for giving me that reflection of believing and protecting your vision.
I went from thinking I was going to have millions in the bank to make this film to being dead broke. My younger sister’s internship money is literally what kept me fed. I now had no choice but to fully embrace my vision: a cowboy style of maneuvering, an obsessive pursuit to make this sensitive and radical film come to life. I think this was the moment when I realized that the spirit of this film was going to be wildly independent. As Spike Lee said I would have to will it into existence and let it become a miracle of sorts.
I went back to Paris. Every stage of the filmmaking was dire and difficult. I rebuilt my team with brilliant artists hungry and passionate to create this film with me. A team that truly became like a family. Everyone gave and sacrificed in the effort of birthing this misfit baby.
It was hard to convince actors to step into the shoes of some of the most hated individuals responsible for the most violent attacks in France. It was hard to stretch a two-and-a-half week shoot into the genesis of a narrative film. It was hard to raise money for this film but thankfully our fairy godmothers and fathers arrived. After much campaigning with the indie begging bowl we were able to put a budget together.
The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival. We garnered strong reviews and went on to win over 30 awards on the festival circuit. My dream had been accomplished. I was so proud of my team and what we had created together. Our radical and sensitive baby persevered and moved audiences across the world. We were able to bring onboard world class supporters as EPs alongside Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, Alma Ha’rel and Riz Ahmed, who also joined the film. And then a strange thing happened. Even though the film was performing so well with audiences and gaining praise we couldn’t translate that into a distribution deal that could successfully launch the film.
It’s almost like the subject of the story which brings to the surface the misogyny, racism, and Islamophobia that Hasna struggled against was now the very issue the film was coming up against. I felt there was a fear of the film from distributors. I got love letters from some of my favorite distributors saying how much they loved the film but that they were worried about how audiences would react to humanizing a woman falsely called a terrorist. Really, I thought, what a double standard. Afterall, Hollywood has no qualms with humanizing all sorts of terrible white men who have committed atrocities. Jojo Rabbit, Taxi Driver, all the endless films about Ted Bundy, the list goes on. But Hasna, no.
I couldn’t help but feel an affront to my own identity as an Egyptian Muslim woman. Hasna and I share a similar background. We are Arab and Muslim women living in the West. It dawned on me that Hollywood had no problem humanizing villains but there was a red line surrounding Hasna’s story. She was an Arab Muslim Woman. You are not afforded complexity through a fictionalization of your story if you unfortunately were not a white male.
I’m incredibly lucky that I had beside me a relentless producer, Elizabeth Woodward who, like I, refused to accept these lackluster deals to release the film.
We decided to release the film independently. We contacted everyone we could who could give us information on how to do it. We assembled a team to take on each part of the process (see shout outs and more detail below in Elizabeth’s section of this piece). And then we simply did it.
Of course we could not have done any of this if our EPs did not believe in the film and support us in this independent release of the film.
There were moments where I felt, does this make us losers that we didn’t get the right deal? And I realized no, we are proving the market wrong and hopefully inspiring other filmmakers who are in similar positions that there is a way to get your film out in the world if the distribution model isn’t serving you. We formed a small dedicated team, and we were able to book the film across the country in art house cinemas and chains like Laemmle, Harkins, Angelika, Regal and even AMC.
We simply went straight to the exhibitors. Thousands of cold emails were sent to theater owners across the country. We shared a link of the film and thankfully the film was well received and exhibitors wanted to book it.
I do feel like our experience is a living proof that you must forge your own path. There is a huge benefit in maintaining your agency and knowing where every dollar that was difficult to raise is going, in knowing that you are pushing directly for the film to get seen and create an impact.
It’s a monumental amount of work but if you are able to have the perseverance and a dedicated team of people beside you who deeply care about the film reaching audiences and having an impact, then it is possible. I’m living it now with my film, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I guess in one way or another this independent drive was truly the spirit of the film from the journey’s inception. The film is a misfit within the system, but it exists, and like Spike said, it’s our miracle.
You Resemble Me is currently playing in New York at the Angelika Film Center.