A Gay Girl In Damascus - The Amina Profile

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday October 6, 2015

A Gay Girl In Damascus - The Amina Profile

When the family of an openly lesbian blogger named Amina Assaf received a late night visitation from Syria's secret police during the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, Amina's 76-year-old father sent the men away, refusing to allow his daughter to be interrogated. Not long after, Amina and her father fled Damascus in a van; but eventually, reports of young men abducting Amina on the street surfaced, triggering a rash of news reports internationally and a race to verify the reports and do whatever might be possible to secure Amina's humanitarian treatment and her release.

The problem with all of this was that Amina Assaf was the fictional creation of a 40-year-old American man named Thomas MacMaster, who, in an apology to readers of the blog, confessed to having made up the character of Amina. But, he added, the situation in Syria was not a fabrication: The people there, he said, were facing difficulties just as he reported on the blog.

That is probably all most people familiar with the story recall now, four years after it happened. But there was more going on, and writer-director Sophie Deraspe interviews a number of real Syrian activists, along with journalists, bloggers, and a French woman named Sandra Bagaria who was living in Montreal when she began an online romance with Amina before Amina's blog -- "A Gay Girl in Damascus" -- began publication in February of 2011.

For 112 days, Amina's blog described life in Syria from a lesbian point of view, and from a street-level perspective as she supposedly joined others in demonstrations and even saw people killed by forces of the nation's oppressive regime. Sandra was an avid reader, and a devoted friend, checking in with Amina frequently. When Amina disappeared and her messages stopped coming, Sandra was worried sick. When the deception unraveled and the young woman whose photos had been used by "Amina" stepped forward -- her name was Jelena Lecic, and she appeared on BBC Newsnight -- the investigation into what happened to Amina turned into an investigation into who was behind her blog. McMaster was identified as the author.

The situation is not unlike that detailed in another film that delivers a cautionary tale for the digital age: The 2010 documentary "Catfish," in which a young fellow meets a beautiful, accomplished woman online and, seeking to surprise her, shows up in her home town, only to discover that the woman he's fallen in love with is the online creation (complete with Facebook page, photos, and genuine-sounding posts) of a middle-aged woman completely unlike the person he thought he'd come to know.

"The Amina Profile" follows similar beats (again, with the fictional woman's life seemingly confirmed by detailed, but bogus, online accounts of who she is and what she does), but this time the fabrication inspired international headlines. When the filmmaker follows Sandra to Istanbul, where she catches up with MacMaster, one half expects the film to arrive at the same sort of ending as happened in "Catfish": A reconciliation that feels only half-sincere. That, thankfully, is not what happens.

Deraspe's film, while a documentary, is carried off like an erotic thriller. "Amina" (played by Nilay Olcay) is presented out of focus, in dreamy cityscapes that seem like they could be Damascus. Footage of "Amina" in the streets of a Middle Eastern city are cut with scenes of Arab Spring protests. The text exchanges between the two women take place over hazy fantasy imagery suited to the steamy content. In one early scene, we see two female figures that look like the same person, and wonder if this is Amina looking into a mirror; it's an image that prompts speculation about to what extent any romance, online or in the real world, is a matter of reflection, illusion, and projection.

This is a strange and effective film. It's also far more complex than you might expect, with twists and layers of deceit that seem like they came out of fiction. See this and ponder the nature of human reality -- not just in our electronic age, but over all of time.

"In theaters today in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego and available to stream exclusively at Sundance Now Doc Club

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.