'The Amina Profile': Film Review

Courtesy of Esperamos
Romantic fantasy is stranger than fiction

Canadian documentary unravels the bizarre true story of a headline-grabbing hoax that left a legacy of emotional and political damage

A cautionary true story about online romance, gay rights and Middle Eastern politics, The Amina Profile is both topical and compelling. The Canadian director Sophie Deraspe finds a local focus for her global narrative, and withholds a shock revelation until midway through in the manner of Catfish or Searching for Sugar Man. Viewers who follow current affairs will already be aware of the twist, which made worldwide headlines in 2011. But foreknowledge does not lessen enjoyment of Deraspe’s artful documentary, which screens at the LGBT-themed BFI Flare festival in London this week. Timely political context and glossy production values should snare further festival bookings, with potential for niche theatrical interest.

Blogging under the button-pushing, attention-grabbing banner A Gay Girl in Damascus, Amina Arraf claimed to be a Syrian-American lesbian reporting from the frontline of the 2011 uprisings that plunged Syria into its ongoing civil war. A highly marketable mix of young, brave and beautiful, Arraf rapidly became a cause celebre among online activists, her defiantly out-and-proud dispatches from the Arab Spring reprinted in The Guardian and other liberal media outlets. Meanwhile, Arraf began a steamy online romance with one of her admirers, Sandra Bagaria, a Frenchwoman living in Montreal.

Bagaria is the emotional center and chief protagonist of this film, allowing Deraspe access to her private archive of sexually frank email exchanges with Arraf. Stylish and seductive, the first half of The Amina Profile features a fictionalized Arraf (Nilay Olcay) wandering through a poetic approximation of Damascus, always glimpsed in silhouette or shadow, or in eroticized bedroom poses. Sam Shalabi’s score, a sensual blend of Arabic and western elements, wafts through the story like perfume. The sense of blurred identity and dreamlike fantasy is deliberate, foreshadowing events to come.

Deraspe recreates historical events in the present tense, chronicling how a long-distance cyber romance deepened over several months. Bagaria suffered real anguish when Arraf was apparently abducted by Syrian security forces in June 2011, and joined a huge worldwide effort to try and find her, even enlisting the US State Department. But she then felt sickening betrayal when her fantasy girlfriend’s true identity was finally exposed.

For anyone who missed this news story in 2011, stop reading now if you want to avoid the big spoiler. Because the blogger behind Arraf’s Syrian lesbian poster girl turned out to be a married, heterosexual, 40-year-old, Edinburgh-based American academic called Thomas MacMaster. The online photos he used for his fictional heroine were stolen from Jelena Lecic, a Croatian living in London. Overnight, A Gay Girl in Damascus went from being a beloved human rights icon to a worldwide hate figure. Deraspe presents this shock revelation as a stylistic rupture in her film, with Bagaria looking wounded and speechless over discordant background music and scrambled visuals.

Deraspe fleshes out this personal story with much-needed political context. Bagaria plays a kind of globe-trotting detective role, skipping between San Francisco, Chicago, Beirut, Istanbul and other outposts along the way. She interviews the LGBT and human rights activists who first fell for Arraf, then grew suspicious and finally exposed her as a hoax. Some confess to gullibility and shame, but most berate McMaster for his narcissistic hijacking of their struggle, which diverted global attention from the real horrors of the Assad regime in Syria. In his defence, MacMaster claims in archive media interviews that his fictional persona simply got out of control, and highlighted the “liberal Orientalism” of the western media towards the Arab world.

Bagaria’s global quest climaxes in a delicate face-to-face meeting with MacMaster, former fantasy lovers now seemingly embarrassed by the intimacy they once shared. A slippery MacMaster attempts to explain Arraf as an experiment in creative writing, born of complex artistic and political motives. Her less high-minded function as a vehicle for his pornographic fantasies remains the elephant in the room, a psychologically rich area that Deraspe either misses or willfully ignores. More of this brief interview might have made for a more complex but revealing film about the role of private desires in shaping media and political narratives.

The Amina Profile is an absorbing, artfully assembled and timely reconstruction of a fascinating digital-age hoax. The film’s only serious blind spot is in straining so hard to paint Bagaria as a heartbroken victim. Romantic disappointment is obviously no fun for anybody, but rarely a grand tragedy. After all, the two lovers never met, or even spoke on the phone, during their short online affair. The film-makers rightly criticize MacMaster for allowing his self-indulgent fantasy avatar to overshadow true stories of heroism and human rights abuse in Syria. But by focussing her sympathy chiefly on Bagaria’s hurt feelings, Deraspe makes some similarly questionable moral choices herself.

Production company: Esperamos, National Film Board of Canada

Cast: Sandra Bagaria, Ali Abunimah, Andy Carvin, Nilay Olcay, Thomas MacMaster, Rami Nakhla, Leila Nahas, Daniel Nassar

Director, screenwriter, cinematographer: Sophie Deraspe

Producers: Isabelle Couture, Nathalie Cloutier

Editors: Deraspe, Geoffrey Boulangé

Music: Sam Shalabi

Sales company: National Film Board of Canada

Unrated, 85 minutes