As the trial started of the ISIS gang that murdered 130 people across Paris in 2015, a cinema depiction of the life of a woman drawn into the terrorists’ web had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday.
Hasna Ait Boulahcen, 26, was mistakenly labelled Europe’s first female suicide bomber when she was killed in a blast at a flat in the Parisian suburbs besieged by police three days after attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, restaurants and bars, and an international football game at the Stade de France.
In fact, the explosion was triggered by Chakib Akrouh, one of two men, both heavily involved in the Paris massacre, with whom she was hiding in the flat in Seine-Saint-Denis. The other man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, operational leader of the Paris attackers, was Boulahcen’s cousin and responsible for her radicalisation. In a mobile phone video that later surfaced, Boulahcen was heard screaming: “Please help? Let me jump. I want to leave.”
The lone surviving attacker from that night, Salah Abdeslam, is the key defendant at the trial launched on Wednesday. Abdeslam, whose brother was among the suicide bombers, appeared wearing a black short-sleeved shirt and black trousers, his long hair tied back.
All three people in the flat in 2015 died. Had she survived, Boulahcen would undoubtedly have been among the suspected accomplices on trial with Abdeslam. It would have been for the court, sitting in a specially constructed chamber within the old Palais de Justice on the banks of the Seine, to judge the extent of her culpability as a terrorist accessory. With 300 lawyers, 1,800 “parties civiles” – people injured, bereaved or otherwise innocently affected by the atrocities – and files stretching to millions of pages, verdicts are not expected until May 2022.
Egyptian-American director Dina Amer says her new film on Boulahcen, You Resemble Me, makes no attempt to excuse her actions but examines how a miserable childhood of poverty, separation and abuse helped shape the woman she became.
She told The National she made the film after meeting Boulahcen’s mother and spending 360 hours interviewing family and friends, building a picture of a “fragmented character”, about whom there would always be elements of mystery.
“Again and again and again, I started as the individual who would most hold resentment for Hasna,” she says. “I am a Muslim woman of faith. I would never defend her actions or the actions of those like her. I didn’t feel any compassion for her to be honest.
“But when I met her mother and saw her picture as a young girl, I thought ‘oh my God, that’s like me when I was a little girl, I looked like that. How did she end up in that position?’
“When I connected to people who loved her and yet were ashamed of what she did and confused, I was like ‘this is complicated, it isn’t so black and white’. And thank God she was a human being, not just a monster; she was a woman who messed up and there are ways of protecting others who mess up. Thank God there’s a way to understand this psychology and stop others doing the same thing.”
As a child in a dysfunctional family of Moroccan origin, Boulahcen faced violence and rejection as her mentally ill mother struggled to cope without a partner. She begged on the streets to eat and later drifted into prostitution and drugs. Rejection followed her into adulthood; the film shows a fellow Maghrebin interviewer mocking her application to join the French army.
As a journalist then working for Vice News, Amer was among those who mistakenly reported in good faith that Boulahcen died as a suicide bomber as the holed-up terrorists plotted to bomb police officers if they stormed the flat.
Amer recognises the controversial nature of a semi-fictional portrayal of Boulahcen’s life that seeks to humanise her. She was once told by her brother Youssef: “Very simply, if you want to know why my sister made this horrible choice it comes down to one thing.” Pointing to their mother, he added: “It is this woman’s fault.”
Boulahcen’s younger sister, Mariam, from whom she was separated by the authorities when both were sent into foster care, also blamed “this messed-up family”. She reserved her fiercest contempt for Abaaoud, the cousin who grew up to be the mastermind of one of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in modern history. Amer remembers her telling the coroner at the mortuary: “I would like you to find his body and feed it to pigs because he is a monster who killed 130 people and brainwashed my sister.”
The film offers no definitive conclusions on how deeply Boulahcen became involved with, or what she knew of, her cousin’s activities. When she joined him at the flat, their conversation as represented in the script suggests she was shocked when he said she would not be going to Syria, as intended, but taking part as a suicide bomber in follow-up attacks.
Amer’s strongest wish for her film is that it will come to be seen as less about terrorism than about society and victims.
She accepts that broken homes, lack of education and childhood abuse do not justify or always explain radicalisation. She knows that while filmgoers may sympathise with Boulahcen’s appalling experiences as a child and teenager, they will be horrified at what she became.
Perhaps above all, Amer wants to discover how best to steer young people in sensitive neighbourhoods away from the path Boulahcen took, “being so disenchanted with living that they want to sign up for death”.