‘I felt so guilty for perpetuating fake news’: Former journalist sets the record straight on Paris ‘suicide bomber’

In 2015, Dina Amer reported - inaccurately - on ‘Europe’s first female suicide bomber’. A biopic aims to make amends

In 2015, Hasna Aït Boulahcen, a 26-year-old woman, made global headlines as “Europe’s first suicide bomber” when, besieged by police three days after the attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, restaurants and bars, and a football game at the Stade de France, she was killed in a bomb blast in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis.

“French prosecutors have confirmed that Hasna Aït Boulahcen (26) was the woman who died when she blew herself up during a police raid on a flat in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis on Wednesday,” reported the BBC on November 20th that year.

In the wake of a series of co-ordinated attacks that left 130 people dead, it was another development that left journalists scrambling to gather details about the attackers and their victims.

Dina Amer, who was covering the Paris attacks for Vice News, was one of many who arrived at the scene in Saint-Denis in the hours after the explosion.


Amer, a respected journalist who had previously won the Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Award from the Arab American Institute Foundation for her coverage of the Arab Spring in Egypt, reported that Boulahcen died as a suicide bomber when police officers stormed the apartment where she and her cousin, Abdelhamid Abaaoud – who had masterminded the attacks and persuaded Boulahcen to join Islamic State – were hiding.

Further investigation revealed that one of the male suspects, not Boulahcen, had set off the bomb. Footage taken moments before the detonation shows Boulahcen screaming for police assistance: “Please help! Let me jump! I want to leave!” But by then it was too late. The story was out there. Retractions and corrections were far from universal.

The news cycle moved on. Dina Amer did not. Instead, she spent seven years researching the woman who was grotesquely misrepresented by the media.

Shortly after that bomb went off, I reported - like every other journalist did - that she was the first female suicide bomber. I felt so guilty for perpetuating fake news. I had to do something

—  Dina Amer

The result is You Resemble Me, an unflinching hybrid drama which premiered at the 78th Venice International Film Festival and has gone on to win 23 international awards.

“I would have never in a million years chosen to make a film in France, or about women who were radicalised, any of that,” says Amer, speaking via Zoom from Salt Lake City, Utah. “But shortly after that bomb went off, I reported – like every other journalist did – that she was the first female suicide bomber. I felt so guilty for perpetuating fake news. I had to do something. And I remember all the tabloid headlines about this skanky girl going from the miniskirt to the niqāb; this party girl who was a bit promiscuous. If this was a man, they would never go into details about what he wore and his sex life. That kind of vilification felt very personal because I’m also a woman who is Middle Eastern, growing up in the West. And we can see in the news cycle, that if you are a white male, there is space for complexity even if you’ve done atrocious things.”

Amer, who describes herself as a “recovering journalist”, became frustrated and disillusioned with a profession that, in the case of Hasna Aït Boulahcen, allowed little room for nuance. Over six years. she conducted 360 hours of interviews in order to understand and depict Boulahcen on screen.

“The world desperately needs an updated version of the film Network. We’re now in a whole new space of TikTok journalism and echo chambers and post-truth. And even within the newsrooms I used to work in, there is a lot of subjectivity. It really enraged me that people sensationalised and fictionalised Hasna’s life. But when I try to give you the honest experience of what happened, that was so threatening for so many people.”

Amer enrolled in the film programme at NYU, where she was mentored by Spike Lee. When she was offered a multimillion deal with Amazon to make a documentary on Hasna Ait Boulahcen, Lee advised her to “pray on it”.

She turned Amazon down. Lee, Riz Ahmed and Spike Jonze are credited as executive producers on You Resemble Me.

“I worked with CNN; I’d worked with the New York Times, but I also was a part of a film called The Square, which is a documentary about the Egyptian revolution of 2011,” says Amer. “That really was a bridge into filmmaking for me in many ways because I felt that the time and the space that you have in that film can really create something that’s immersive and immediate and intimate. I really believe stories choose people, and this one chose me. But for this story, I really wanted the audience to walk in her shoes. That was sacred to me. And documentary wasn’t going to allow for that.”

A key concept of You Resemble Me is the commonality between the filmmaker and her subject. It’s an idea that originated with Boulachen’s mother, who, in the days following the explosion that killed her daughter, granted her sole interview to Amer on the grounds that the young journalist looked like, laughed like and walked like her daughter.

Over the years, a bond formed between Amer and the grieving family; she even joined Boulahcen’s mother and sister at the morgue for a viewing of Boulahcen’s remains.

That connection is amplified by the director’s decision to deepfake her own face over You Resemble Me’s lead, Mouna Soualem. In other scenes, Algerian star Sabrina Ouazani plays the role. It’s an aesthetic choice that echoes how the media circulated images of three different women they identified as Boulahcen.

I wanted to bring her humanity into the picture. So it was important that I built intimacy and trust with her sister and her family

“I wanted to bring her humanity into the picture,” says Amer, who was born and raised in the US. “So it was important that I built intimacy and trust with her sister and her family. I think that I had the right kind of connection point. I’m an Egyptian, I speak Arabic. I’m a Muslim. But at the same time, I’m not French. There’s space for me to learn, there’s distance. I could never make a 9/11 film because that’s just way too close, you know? That’s why I could look into Hasna.”

You Resemble Me opens on Hasna Aït Boulahcen, a young French-Arab girl growing up in Saint-Denis, wondering if she should throw herself off a balcony. “Maybe then they would pay attention to me,” she reasons.

In childhood, Hasna and her sister Mariam, as magnetically portrayed by real-life siblings Lorenza Grimaudo and Ilonna Grimaudo respectively, are neglected by their mother, who struggles with mental health issues, and have been abandoned by their father.

When social services swoop in, they send the sisters to separate foster homes, a decision that proves disastrous for Hansa. By her early 20s, she has drifted into sex work, couch surfing and drug dealing. Desperate for a sense of purpose, she attempts to enlist in the French military only to be mocked by the recruitment officer. Her cousin and his Islamic State connections soon fill the void.

I’m making this film because she made bad choices and she paid the price. She captured the world’s attention and now we need to understand why

“I didn’t want anyone to walk away from this film and say: oh, the reason why she radicalised was that she had a broken family or because the army rejected her or because she was sleeping on the street,” says Amer. “I wanted to just present all the facts. Maybe if there was better support for mental health issues and maybe if she had been accepted into the army, we’d be looking at a woman who died protecting her friends. But I was never making this film for people to just sit to say, hey, she’s innocent. I’m making this film because she made bad choices and she paid the price. She captured the world’s attention and now we need to understand why. She was dealing with a mental health crisis of not knowing who she was and living in a highly dissociative state. There were education and employment issues. But when we find someone who didn’t struggle with any of that and is still radicalised, the one common denominator is that these are individuals who are highly fractured, who do not know who they are. This girl was a cowgirl in her neighbourhood. She was a misfit who wore a cowboy hat. Going to Syria was like the wild west for her. She was going to be a good girl and reinvent herself in a niqāb.”

You Resemble Me is available on digital platforms from February 3rd