Egyptian-American filmmaker Dina Amer discusses her debut feature ‘You Resemble Me’

Egyptian-American filmmaker Dina Amer discusses her debut feature ‘You Resemble Me’
Dina Amer attended the Red Sea Film Festival. (AFP)
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Updated 11 March 2022

Egyptian-American filmmaker Dina Amer discusses her debut feature ‘You Resemble Me’

Egyptian-American filmmaker Dina Amer discusses her debut feature ‘You Resemble Me’

DUBAI: “To be honest, I never thought this film would be screened in Saudi Arabia,” admits the Egyptian-American filmmaker Dina Amer. “For this film, which deals with Islamic radicalization, to be seen and embraced in Saudi Arabia at its first film festival in my lifetime almost felt unbelievable. I felt like I was witnessing this cultural opening in Saudi Arabia and it makes me very proud as a Muslim woman. Because it makes me feel like it’s going to vibrate to the rest of the Muslim world and allow for greater freedoms.”

“You Resemble Me,” which had its Arab premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival in December, is an adaptation of the life of Hasna Aït Boulahcen and an exploration of the roots of Islamic radicalization. A troubled young woman of Moroccan descent, Boulahcen came from an underprivileged suburb of Paris and endured poverty and abuse throughout her short life. She died with her cousin Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the ringleaders of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, during a police raid in Saint-Denis.




Dina Amer, director of You Resemble Me (Tu Me Ressembles). (Photo credit: Kevin Scanlon)

Such is the sensitivity of the film’s subject matter that, despite positive reviews, Amer was nervous prior to the movie’s regional debut in Jeddah.

“I was very concerned because it’s the other polarity,” she says. “In the West, some people might be offended that I even dare to make a film that ‘humanizes a terrorist.’ And meanwhile, she never set off a bomb and she never killed anyone. That was fake news. But here there could be a backlash of, ‘Well, don’t even touch our religion, don’t even weigh in on anything that has to do with our faith, because it’s too sensitive, it’s too touchy.’

“But people came up to me after the film and were like, ‘Thank you so much, I feel inspired to one day make a film or write a script.’ That’s the power of film and storytelling,” she continues. “It can actually inspire others to say ‘I want to do that, too, I have a story to tell.’ And I feel like the power of art is that it offers the opportunity for transformation, for healing, for catharsis — for yourself and for an audience.”




“You Resemble Me” had its Arab premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival in December. (Supplied)

“You Resemble Me” had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival last September and stars Mouna Soualem and Sabrina Ouazani. Even Amer herself appears as a version of Boulahcen, with three actors portraying the adult Hasna at different points throughout the film. Such is its emotional intensity that Amer’s directorial debut attracted the support of a host of executive producers, including Spike Lee and Riz Ahmed, and won the Audience Award at the Red Sea International Film Festival.

One of the most striking aspects of the film, however, is the performance of the two girls who play Hasna and her sister Mariam as children. Portrayed by sisters Lorenza Grimaudo and Ilonna Grimaudo respectively, they have a raw energy that is mesmerizing to watch.

“I was very fortunate that I met them on the very first day of casting,” recalls Amer. “They were the last kids to show up and I knew instantly that they were my kids. Because they’re kids from the hood, you know what I mean? They have this kinetic energy and there’s a deep love between them. They lost their father at a young age and so they understand tragedy and they also understand perseverance. They’re like young warriors.”




“You Resemble Me” stars Mouna Soualem and Sabrina Ouazani. (Supplied)

Amer worked with them both extensively during rehearsals, helping to channel their natural talent. “For me, these two sisters are the real Mariam and Hasna of France today: They’re young, they’re sisters, they love each other, they’re wildly talented. But will France actually make use of their talent? Will they be cast in other projects or will they be told, ‘No, you’re not quite what we’re looking for. You don’t quite belong in this industry’? That would be a shame for France because, internationally, the one unifying comment is ‘Who are those kids?’”

Amer didn’t choose to tell the story of Boulahcen, it chose her, she says. As a journalist working for Vice News, she arrived in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis a few hours after the explosion that killed Boulahcen. Covering the developing story live on air, she, like everybody else, would report that Boulahcen was Europe’s first female suicide bomber — information that later turned out to be untrue. Amer felt so terrible that she went in search of Boulahcen’s mother, eventually securing the only interview she would give.




Amer co-wrote the film with Omar Mullick following over 300 hours of recorded interviews with Hasna’s family and friends. (Supplied)

“She said I reminded her of her daughter,” says Amer, who co-wrote the film with Omar Mullick following over 300 hours of recorded interviews with Hasna’s family and friends. “And she showed me a picture of Hasna as a child and said ‘This is my child, this is my daughter, not the woman with the niqab who looks scary on the news and is being called a terrorist.’ The family kept on saying ‘You remind us of Hasna,’ and I started to see similarities and parallels to this woman. I understood what it’s like, to a lesser degree, but there’s the same internal conflict that I share with Hasna, which is: How do I, as a Muslim woman living in the West, reconcile my identity?

“I am proud to be Muslim. I am also born and raised in the US and heavily influenced by Western culture. But I’m also Egyptian. There are these pieces and sometimes they feel conflicting, because you’re told that you can’t be Muslim and modern. Or to be Muslim in the West, how do I navigate that as a woman and feel like I’m emancipated? So it’s a tricky thing to traverse and, in the end, when you are unable to reconcile your identity as a third-culture kid, I feel like that leads to that devastating headline in some cases. So I could relate. I spent my whole life actually distancing myself from people like Hasna and feeling like these people are a shame to us; they don’t belong to us. They go down in all the glory saying ‘We’re Muslim’ and they tarnish our identity, you know? And we have to go around saying ‘No, Islam is a religion of peace’ and all the rest.”

It wasn’t until Amer spent time at Rikers Island, one of the largest prisons in the US, that she began to realize that she could not define people by their worst actions. She also realized that every human is worthy of redemption.

“I love that statement that says as soon as you know someone’s story and where they come from, you fall in love with them, because you can see yourself in them,” Amer says. “I don’t believe that people are born pure evil. I believe that things happen to people and that even though we’re not here to justify, we can’t afford not to understand. Because we reap the repercussions of not understanding.”


US director Oliver Stone explores Saudi film scene at Red Sea International Film Festival  

US director Oliver Stone explores Saudi film scene at Red Sea International Film Festival  
Updated 03 December 2022

US director Oliver Stone explores Saudi film scene at Red Sea International Film Festival  

US director Oliver Stone explores Saudi film scene at Red Sea International Film Festival  

JEDDAH: Lauded US director Oliver Stone took part in a roundtable discussion at the ongoing Red Sea International Film Festival in Saudi Arabia on Saturday.  

When asked by Arab News if he would consider filming in Saudi Arabia, he said: “My time is limited, I’m 76 years old. What do you want me to do, come down here and learn a whole different culture? No, I don’t think that’s possible. I have one project in mind, which I can’t tell you because nobody knows about it and if I can get that done, I would be very happy.” 

 

 

“The Middle East has tremendous potential, economically too. People are putting money here, no question,” he added.  

When commenting on film’s ability to act as a cultural bridge, he said “I imagine cinema has played a huge role, but on the other hand cinema is also very violent and revenge-motivated — those stories always seem to work — so you could say that’s not a good example for the world… so it’s double-edged, it depends on the movie.” 

 

 

Stone’s latest documentary “Nuclear” is screening at the festival on Sunday.  

Prior to his private discussion, the “Scarface” director and RSIFF jury president took to the stage at the opening ceremony of the festival on Thursday to share his views on Saudi Arabia.  

Stone said the country is “much misunderstood in the present world – people who have judged too harshly should come and visit to see for themselves.” He also noted “changes” and “reforms” taking place in the Kingdom, which he said make it worth a visit.  

Commenting on the 15-strong competition slate, the Oscar-winning director said: “These films stick to very basic ideas of survival, migration, suffering. There’s a real spirit here, which is growing,” according to Variety.  

The event will continue until Dec. 10 under the slogan “Film is Everything.”  

The festival is set to showcase 131 feature films and shorts from 61 countries, in 41 languages, made by established and emerging talents. Seven feature films and 24 shorts from Saudi Arabia will also be shown. 


Review: Red Sea title ‘Shimoni’ is both devastating and meaningful  

Review: Red Sea title ‘Shimoni’ is both devastating and meaningful  
Updated 03 December 2022

Review: Red Sea title ‘Shimoni’ is both devastating and meaningful  

Review: Red Sea title ‘Shimoni’ is both devastating and meaningful  

JEDDAH: “Shimoni (The Pit)” — part of the ongoing Red Sea International Film Festival — was written and directed with a lot of feeling by Kenya’s Angela Wamai. It is a devastating look at what happens when a community fails to care for a fallen man. Wamai's ability to tell a story through long silences add to the tension, aided by some wonderfully neat editing. The use of light and shade to take us through the moods of the moment to create a fantastic feeling, and our hearts go out to Geoffrey (Justin Mirichii), who suffers through a childhood trauma and a punishingly long jail term.  

Wamai's writing presents an authentic picture of this deeply religious churchgoing village, where the pastor's word is the law. (Supplied)

Released from prison seven years after being charged with homicide, Geoffrey shudders when he is asked to live in the village where he grew up and where horrifying memories torment him. Once a brilliant English teacher, the former convict is uneasy when he is asked to do farm work. His boss is a talkative woman, Martha (Muthoni Gathecha), who is displeased with him.  

The village priest has his own agenda — he wants Geoffrey to repent for his sins and gives the fallen man a sermon every night. But when the pastor insists that the young man meet with the victim's family, the uneasiness is excruciating.   

What ultimately proves to be a tipping point is when village gossip becomes unbearable for him. Beatrice (Vivian Wambui), just about to get out of her teen years, is another source of irritation for him, when her curiosity pushes her to play with fire. 

Wamai's writing presents an authentic picture of this deeply religious churchgoing village, where the pastor's word is the law. The only person who appears outside this circle is Martha, who loves playing the sleuth. Interestingly, the script offers a lovely view of the relationship between her and Geoffrey — their meetings are both tense and witty and the movie, set in the Kenyan countryside, goes to underline the trauma of an individual when he has had a run in with the law.  


Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jessica Alba among chic guests at RSIFF 2022- Women in Cinema gala  

Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jessica Alba among chic guests at RSIFF 2022- Women in Cinema gala  
Updated 03 December 2022

Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jessica Alba among chic guests at RSIFF 2022- Women in Cinema gala  

Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jessica Alba among chic guests at RSIFF 2022- Women in Cinema gala  

JEDDAH: International movie and TV star Priyanka Chopra Jonas made a glittering entrance at the Women in Cinema gala at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah on Friday night. Other glamorous guests included the likes of Jessica Alba, Frieda Pinto, Tara Emad, Lucy Hale, Sharon Stone, Gurinder Chadha, Salma Abu Deif, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja and more. 

“Quantico” star Chopra Jonas looked resplendent in a lavish gold gown by Lebanese designer Nicolas Jebran. Hollywood actress Alba — famously seen in movies like “Sin City” and “Fantastic Four” — also supported Middle East labels by opting for an elegant, embellished gown from Lebanese couturier Elie Saab. 

Meanwhile, on the opening night of the film festival, stars took to the red carpet and shone a light on Saudi designers. While stars like Sharon Stone, Shah Rukh Khan, Oliver Stone, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and many more graced the red carpet in striking fashion looks, Saudi designers also had their moment to shine at the event. 

Brazilian supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio dazzled in a blue jumpsuit from Jeddah-based designer Yousef Akbar. She completed the look with a gold bangle and matching stud earrings. The model has often sported creations from Arab designers. Last month, she wore a lime gown by Lebanese couturier Zuhair Murad to a holiday brunch in Mexico.  

Jomana Al-Rashed, the first Saudi woman to be appointed CEO of the Saudi Research and Media Group, was spotted posing alongside Hollywood star Sharon Stone, wearing Saudi label Loodyana. 

British actress Jacqui Ainsley, known for her role in the 2017 film “King Arthur: legend of the Sword,” took to the red carpet wearing US-based label Dazluq, founded by Saudi designer Salma Zahran. Ashley is married to British filmmaker Guy Ritchie, who was also in attendance. 

Julianne Hough at the Women in Cinema gala dinner. (Getty Images)

Honayda Serafi, founder of the Saudi label Honayda, represented her own brand in a striking green ensemble. “Delighted to be attending the opening ceremony of the second edition of the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, surrounded by successful talents from around the world and celebrating Arab artists. A grand event bridging cultures from West to East, bursting (with) creativity and beauty,” she posted on Instagram, along with shots of her outfit. 

Lebanese influencer Nathalie Fanj was seen wearing an ethereal mermaid black gown from designer Tima Abed. She completed the look with dangling, heart-shaped earrings from Chopard. 


British filmmaker Guy Ritchie envisions bright future for Saudi film industry

British filmmaker Guy Ritchie envisions bright future for Saudi film industry
Updated 03 December 2022

British filmmaker Guy Ritchie envisions bright future for Saudi film industry

British filmmaker Guy Ritchie envisions bright future for Saudi film industry

RIYADH: British filmmaker Guy Ritchie, most famous for his hit gangster films, the "Sherlock Holmes" franchise and his live-action "Aladdin" adaptation, said that Saudi Arabia is ripe for building a successful film industry, at the Red Sea International Film Festival. 

The director was speaking to Arab News on day two of the film festival in Jeddah.

Guy Ritchie at the photocall at the Red Sea International Film Festival on Friday. (Getty Images)

"What's interesting about (Saudi Arabia) is that there's such an explosion of enthusiasm. It's young and it's creative. And there's a high desire to express creativity. That makes it very interesting. So it's trying to couple the inexperience with the enthusiasm, because you have the enthusiasm and the means. And now you've just got to develop some form of experience and sub-structure," said Ritchie about the developing and nascent film industry in Saudi Arabia.

"I don't like making movies in the UK anyway. So I'd rather make movies outside of the UK. We worked in Jordan for 'Aladdin.' And that worked very well for us. We were in Spain for the last film and in Turkey for the film before that. There's no need to get out of the UK but I'd much rather work in in new and exciting environments. And for that really you just need a sub-structure in order to facilitate the ability of making movies. And I'm sure that will happen," added the filmmaker, who is attending the film festival along with his actress-wife Jacqui Ainsley.

Ritchie with his wife Jacqui Ainsley at the opening gala of the Red Sea International Film Festival on Thursday. (Getty Images)

In a separate 'In Conversation' segment on Friday, Ritchie address this topic again and said, "I think I'm very interested in this part of the world. And I think creativity should find its way into this part of the world. That's why I'm here. Really, what we're after is a fusion and the integration of cultural collaboration."

Ritchie went on to explain that for a healthy film industry to be built, incentives and subsidies for film productions are the way to go. "I can't shoot in the UK anymore because it's too busy to shoot there. That's how busy it is. And they've been able to do that because of incentives. So once you have incentives, then the other thing you need is to make a few movies here in Saudi Arabia. So other filmmakers look at the filmmakers that have gone before and then they just trust that," said Ritchie. 

Ritchie first made headlines and found international acclaim with the 1998 British black comedy crime film "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," which he wrote and directed. In an In Conversation panel at the Red Sea International Film Festival on Friday, Ritchie talked about how the film almost didn't get made. 

"This was the hardest film. I mean, it's not coal mining. So you've got relativize it within the world of how hard it is to scratch a living. But the film fell down a 1000 times before it was resurrected. And even when it came to a redistribution, you know, it was out and in and then it was out. And then it came down to, suddenly, there was one particular guy called Chris Evans, in the UK, who saw it and he loved it. And at the time, his show was the most watched show in the UK. And he pulled me on for the next week. That's really what made it a hit. He made a fuss about it, then everyone else would come," said Ritchie.


Sharon Stone gets emotional during Saudi Arabia visit

Sharon Stone gets emotional during Saudi Arabia visit
Updated 02 December 2022

Sharon Stone gets emotional during Saudi Arabia visit

Sharon Stone gets emotional during Saudi Arabia visit
  • ‘Basic Instinct’ star is attending Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah

DUBAI: Hollywood star Sharon Stone was visibly emotional during an In Conversation panel discussion at the Red Sea Film Festival on Friday.

Talking about why she decided to visit Saudi Arabia, the star of “Basic Instinct” and “Catwoman” said: “I’m an envelope breaker, my success is to break the envelope, just like coming here. Everyone said to me, aren’t you afraid? And I said, ‘I’m afraid not to know. So why don’t I go, see how it really is and I’ll tell you?’

Sharon Stone at the opening gala on the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah. (AFP)

“What I’ve learned is that what everybody tells you isn’t always the way it is.”

Stone added that it meant the world to her to be at the festival.

“I’m just a kid from Pennsylvania. I grew up with Amish people who drove into my driveway in their horse and buggy. There was no possibility for me to come to Saudi Arabia to meet you.”

Meanwhile, a clip of her awestruck reaction to being seated next to Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan at the opening night of the festival on Thursday has been doing the rounds on social media.