Over the course of five months in 2011, an aspiring Syrian-American writer named Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari gained international recognition as the author of A Gay Girl in Damascus, a blog detailing her experiences as an out lesbian in a country torn by civil war against a repressive regime. On the sixth of June, her cousin posted a distressing message to the blog: agents of the Syrian government had abducted Amina, were holding her captive. Bloggers, journalists and activists across the globe mobilized to pressure the government to release her, but uncovered a shocking revelation.
Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari didn’t actually exist.
Her writings were the work of Tom MacMaster, an American living in Scotland; but Sophie Deraspe’s documentary The Amina Profile is not his story. The real protagonist of the film is Sandra Bagaria, a French-Canadian living in Montreal who’d been conducting an online romantic relationship with Amina that started before Gay Girl in Damascus ever launched. But since the two had never actually met face-to-face, Bagaria had no idea who her girlfriend really was and found out about the hoax at pretty much the same time everybody else did.
Deraspe is at her best when exploring the personal damage caused by MacMaster’s betrayal and its exposure, and Bagaria is a willing, engaging and charismatic subject. The socio-political ramifications are also examined. Journalists gleefully ponder the sensational attention they can get by writing about the “gay girl from Demascus.” Activists express outrage at the media resources tied up in the hunt for “Amina” instead of covering what was really going on in Syria.
The narrative comes apart a bit toward the end of the film, when MacMaster enters the story fully. He remains an enigmatic figure, and while he attempts a rudimentary explanation for why he did what he did, it doesn’t satisfy. The inevitable face-to-face confrontation with Bagaria is anticlimactic, lacking drama. His involvement with the film feels like an obligation to the audience, who–quite understandably–is likely to want to get to know the man behind the character. But Deraspe seems reluctant to give him any more attention (and personally, if that’s the case, I can’t say I blame her).
However, this doesn’t detract from the power of The Amina Profile’s first hour. Overall, it’s a fascinating examination of the pros and cons of the modern world of technology and communication. It’s easier to connect with like minds in foreign countries, easier to disseminate a message, easier to motivate a network. But relationships remain as complex as ever, if not more so.
Saturday, April 25, 7:00 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Monday, April 27, 1:00 PM, Hart House Theatre
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.