In 2015, Hasna Ait Boulahcen was labelled Europe’s first female suicide bomber by the media, after she died in a blast in the Parisian suburbs three days after the attacks at the Bataclan concert hall. Only later, this was retracted, and reports said that she did not blow herself up. Hasna died in the seven-hour police raid on a Saint-Denis flat after a different suspect detonated his vest.
Labelled a “party girl”, a “French cowgirl” who had “never opened a Qur’an”, at the time reporters scrambled for information about Hasna, but struggled to paint a picture of who she really was. Hasna’s story was sensationalised by the press, partly because she behaved in a way that women are apparently not supposed to, or expected to behave.
Rewind 16 or so years, and we watch Hasna and her sister, Myriam, run through the streets of Paris in identical pink dresses, sleeping rough close to the Eiffel Tower after their mother, originally from Morocco, beats them and throws them out of their home. This is “You Resemble Me”, a fiction film about Hasna’s life, co-executive produced by Spike Jonze and Spike Lee, which promises to give greater depth to the journey of Hasna’s life.
Based on 320 hours of interviews with Hasna’s family and friends, “You Resemble Me” shows what can happen when society fails to protect a child. Picked up by the police after stealing food from a market stall, Hasna and her sister are told they will be separated and placed in separate foster homes, even though they are desperate to stay together. In a distressing scene, the sisters scream as they are separated.
Interestingly, I watched “You Resemble Me” the same day BBC Panorama broadcast “Protecting Our Children”, which followed the devastating effect of being in state care can have on some children, including on twins who were separated, despite an expert warning of the damage this would cause.
It is not just the separation from her sister which Hasna endures. In her new home, she is forced to eat pork, against her beliefs, even though she tries to refuse. As she grows older, Hasna is drawn into prostitution and drugs, which return to haunt her, even when she has a stable job working in a fast-food restaurant.
Later, feeling traumatised, isolated and alone, Hasna is groomed and manipulated online by her cousin and extremist, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who tries to persuade her to go to Syria in a classic case of exploiting her vulnerabilities. Abdelhamid, who also died in the raid, was the leader of the Paris attacks and the country’s most hated man.
“You Resemble Me” raises an uncomfortable debate on whether such a film humanises someone like Hasna Ait Boulahcen or if it helps us understand their journey. Filmmaker, Dina Amer, herself reported on the Paris bombings and said she made the film not to justify what Hasna did, but to explain it and so people understand the importance of investing in young people, not just military and policing.
Certainly, “You Resemble Me” does a good job at explaining the path some people can get dragged down when they are split from their families. As a child growing up in care, Hasna was separated not only from a family support network but also her faith, which made her vulnerable to abuse, trafficking and exploitation.
As a young French woman whose parents are from Morocco, there are elements of Hasna’s story that resonate with the case of Shamima Begum, who was also groomed at 15-years-old to join the Islamic state and ran away with two school friends to Syria.
Both Shamima and Hasna were involved with groups who have committed terrible atrocities, no one can deny this. But one is English and the other is French, and both countries must take some responsibility for the lack of safeguarding, which partly led them down the path they chose.
“You Remember Me” will have its New York premiere the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Friday 20 May.