A new edge-of-your-seat documentary lays bare the international hoax of a gay girl in Syria
After any sort of tragedy, significant crime or other heinous act, it soon becomes clear that the news is far more interested in the perpetrators than their victims. With disheartening regularity the stories of the harmed and exploited go untold in favour of salacious coverage of those deemed more compelling. A rebuke of this approach can be found in The Amina Profile (2015), Sophie Deraspe's new documentary which gives voice to the target of a shocking act of deception.
Sandra Bagaria met Amina Arraf online in early 2011 – Bagaria was living in Montreal, while Arraf was a Syrian-American who'd recently moved to Damascus. Libidinous instant messages gave way to an intense online relationship and over the following months the pair exchanged hundreds of e-mails, communicating for hours every day. Bagaria and Arraf's burgeoning romance took place against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and an increasingly dangerous environment to be an out lesbian. In a country where homosexual acts are illegal, Arraf wrote a popular blog called A Gay Girl In Damascus, detailing her life and espousing her progressive political convictions. On her way to meet with members of an opposition planning group on June 6 2011, Arraf was abducted by Syrian security agents. Terrified for her girlfriend's life, Bagaria set in motion an international movement for her release, but within days a problem arose: outside of the internet, there was no record of Arraf ever existing.
As the real identity of 'Amina' was revealed to the world, Bagaria realised she'd been hoaxed, and her concern was replaced with humiliation and pain. Sophie Deraspe was her friend at the time. She explains the sense of unreality: “It really felt as if we were in a movie, like we were part of a thriller and my friend was at the centre of it. She was exposed to the media and her love affair was everywhere.” Deraspe understood that a great story was unfolding but also that her friend was particularly vulnerable. Several months later, it was Bagaria that approached her, wanting to share what had happened. Given total access to her computer, the director combed through months of communication. “We found it all, even the chats that people don't realise is archived in their computers somewhere,” Deraspe recalls. “I knew that I had a lot of information, but I also knew right from the beginning that the themes that could be addressed were more important than how the hoax took place.”
Deraspe thought Bagaria should meet the other key people who had been taken in, from journalists to non-imaginary Syrian activists. She explains: “It was important for Sandra to know that she wasn't alone. She was the only one hurt in such an intimate way but she wasn't the only one fooled. All of them were very bright and educated, just like her. They weren't naïve people caught in some stupid hoax.”
Beyond interviewing those who had been involved, both felt there was one more figure that Bagaria needed to speak to in order to reclaim agency: Tom MacMaster, the married American man who had spent five years pretending he was a gay Syrian woman called Amina. Deraspe reflects on the film's most suspenseful scene: “Meeting with him was something Sandra had to do, not just so the viewer could form their own opinion of the guy, but for closure. It was therapeutic for her to meet him on her own terms and in her own way. It was something very satisfying: she was the one in power, at last.”
A Gay Girl In Damascus: The Amina Profile is out in cinemas and on demand via SundanceNow Doc Club July 24