Sex, Lies, and Uprising in 'A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile'

This film raises questions about truth and fiction in documentary, and questions regarding other sorts of storytelling, in news, social media, and political movements.

A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile

Director: Sophie Deraspe
Cast: Sandra Bagaria, Ali Abunimah, Fady Atallah, Andy Carvin, Nathalie Claude, Benjamin J. Doherty, Liz Henry, Irem Koker, Thomas J. MacMaster, Elsa Miquel, Rami Nakhla, Leila Nahas, Daniel Nassar
Rated: NR
Studio: Sundance Now Doc Club
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-07-24 (Limited release)

"I became aware of Amina through the press coverage," says Ali Abunimah. The Electronic Intifada cofounder continues, "I remember thinking, 'This is the typical kind of story that the media love.'" That story had to do with Amina Arraf, a Syrian-American out lesbian whose blogging about Bashar al-Assad's regime apparently led to her abduction in 2011. This news, reported by Amina's cousin Rania in June, in turn led to worldwide attention and support. "We are hoping she is simply in jail and nothing worse has happened to her," Rania wrote.

As Rania's email appears on screen in A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile, you see a body on a morgue table. The frame is blurred, the corpse is naked, and an attendant arranges her limbs and roughly brushes her hair. The tension between Rania's email and this image signals the film's strategy, which is to offer multiple narrative and emotional strands, to leave open questions of purpose and meaning, to let both your own hope and uncertainty shape your viewing experience.

In offering this mix of effects. Sophie Deraspe's film -- screening in select theaters and SundanceNow Doc Club starting July 24 -- might expand the possibilities of documentary. But even as its use of reenactment, narration, and text continue to complicate the genre, A Gay Girl in Damascus raises other questions, too, regarding other sorts of storytelling, in news, social media, and political movements. For the story here, of a courageous individual speaking truth to power, is also the story of a lie. And if you don't know the story as it became public in 2011, you might consider what follows spoiler material.

Amina Arraf, so appealing, so moving, so thrilling, never existed. Or, she didn't exist as a person who lived with her father in Damascus and who wrote her own blog during the Syrian uprising. Amina did exist in the minds of her readers, perhaps especially in the mind and experience of Sandra Bagaria, a LGBT activist living in Montreal when she first came upon Amina. As the film begins, the women exchange texts and you see their mutual seduction, imagined as a nearly matching set of lithe silhouettes disrobing on opposite sides of the frame. Already, the image suggests the fictions of sex (including sexting) and romance that shape social media. "I have to warn you, I'm very sensual," types Amina. "I like that kind of warning," answers Sandra, "My time to warn: I have a lot of energy."

Both women's energies shape the film. Sandra recalls her early perceptions of the evolving relationship, her sense of intrigue and attraction, her impressions of Amina as an activist, her worries that her girlfriend is in danger. Amina, in flashback messages, describes her determination to go out into the street, to protest, as well as her appreciation for her work, her lesbianism, or some combination. When she posts "My father, the hero" (in which she describes her father standing up to police who come to their apartment to arrest her), Amina's blog attracts more readers. The Guardian interviews her and, as Ali Abunimah, NPR's Andy Carvin and activists Liz Henry, Daniel Nassar, and Rami Nakhla (also known as Malath Aumran) recount here, tales of her bravery impress other advocates of free speech and democracy.

Amina's abduction marks a turning point in the film and in her "profile", too. Her supporters begin to campaign for her release ("Free Amina"), only to discover that she was the creation of someone else, namely, Tom MacMaster, a middle-aged white guy in Georgia, in the US. Sandra bears the emotional brunt of this discovery, embodying the story as she travels the globe to interview everyone else about how they found out; some remark that her participation in the campaign to free Amina, suggesting that her passion and commitment -- her energy -- helped to move them.

As Sandra's story unfolds, the film engages in its own investigation, beginning with her emotional upset, her sense of betrayal and deception. Sandra speaks to this, and reaction shots of her as others speak suggest her self-contemplation, as do repeated images of what she may have imagined as Amina -- a young woman walking through dimly lit alleys that might be in Damascus, the camera following her from behind, her hair short and her dress fluttering in a light breeze. Other images offer other real-seeming fictions, street protests rendered in blurred handheld camerawork, and a chaotic, clattering soundtrack. Occasionally, you're reminded of the body in the morgue, still obscured, still handled as if by an attendant who's seen too many dead bodies.

Such familiarity is visible as well in media responses to the hoax. News outlets including the Guardian decides to interview MacMaster (and also uncover another man posing as a lesbian, as editor for the site Lez Get Real). The fictions and the realities swirl. And Ali Abunimah wonders out loud about who benefits: "We have no reason to believe anything [MacMaster] says," Rami declares. "Why go and interview him? It was not a victimless act and we should not make him the center of attention."

For the film, MacMaster is not a center of attention, but instead, an occasion for examining the workings of social media as a developing and pervasive means of storytelling. How does anyone come to believe what they see or read online? While it's true, as Rami observes, that "social media helped us" construct an effective protest movement in Syria and elsewhere, the trajectory of effects is uneven, comprised of detours, twists, and variations, some intentional and many others not. As the film points out, meaning emerges as much in interpretation and desire, as it might in any artist or reporter's intentions.

Intentions might be gleaned in The Amina Profile's reenactments, but these can also reveal to processes of reading. They allude to the dreams or fears Sandra may have felt. They also signify a generic sort of dread. At the same time, the individuals Sandra interviews note the distraction Amina and MacMaster caused, the celebrity she seemed to be and the lie he crafted. MacMaster tells Sandra that he meant well, that he meant to have "fun" or to champion a just cause for a population in trouble. But Rami, for one, objects that the fiction was ostensibly speaking for protestors who have their own voices, who don't need such enhancement. The media's attention to Amina drew energy away from what he calls "the real situation here: people now, they are dying in the dark."

Is it inevitable that A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile rehearses that same process in the retelling of this story? Is it illuminating or instructive? Is it more of the same? However you might answer these questions, you're involved in a greater storytelling process.


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