BY FRANCESCA LEWIS
In February 2011, a unique and fascinating blog sprang up and for a brief moment, captured the attention and hearts of pretty much the entire world. “A Gay Girl In Damascus” chronicled the experiences of young, beautiful Syrian lesbian Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari. Amina shared compelling tales of the injustice she had witnessed, and been subjected to, under the country’s oppressive regime. When she was allegedly kidnapped a few months later, activists in Syria and beyond, along with the world media, rallied to the cause, hoping to find and help her. However, there was one problem. As they began digging to find information that would help them track Amina down, it became sickeningly clear there was no Amina. She didn’t exist.
This is the subject of Canadian director Sophie Deraspe’s captivating documentary film, which debuted at Sundance last month, The Amina Profile. Deraspe had a unique way into the story, through the woman Amina was having an online relationship with during 2011. Sandra Bagaria fell in love with the fictional creation and was profoundly effected by how the strange events of that year unfolded. “After being on an emotional roller coaster for a few months,” she told us, “when the hoax was revealed I felt that I could not handle the weight of this story by myself. I decided that the story had to be told.”
Deraspe wanted to focus the film on the people the events really had an impact upon; real Syrian activists, people who campaigned for Amina’s release and, of course, Sandra. The film is as much about the realities of life for queer activists in Syria in 2011 as it is about this hoax. She told us, “I figured that the viewer needed to understand the circumstances in which Amina was evolving why it is credible and even necessary to use a pseudonym, for example, when you want to express opinions that put your security and your family at risk.” She wanted to show the very real consequences of this sensational mystery for the genuine rebels fighting the regime in Syria. The Amina debacle was a distraction, she says, “a story that discredited their work as activists and involved an enormous amount of time and energy wasted trying to save a fictitious person, while real people’s lives were at stake.”
The film raises the interesting question, why was Amina able to grab so much attention when all these real activists are completely unknown? The truth highlights something depressing about human nature and the media. “The success of Amina is like a mirror image of our own desires.” says Deraspe, “It takes more effort on our part to engage with someone from a different culture.” Sexy, daring Amina, packaged to both fulfill and subvert our racist expectations, was so easy to love because she was a product, tailored to a Western audience. It is much more of a leap to empathize with a person whose world is unfamiliar and whose story is not as sensational as a paperback novel.
You may be wondering, if you didn’t follow the story at the time, who was behind this invented character. “A Gay Girl In Damascus” was the work of frustrated writer and PhD student Tom McMaster, a white American man in his 40s. He was also behind the very real messages and chats that Sandra thought she was having with her girlfriend Amina. McMaster, who had an interest in Middle Eastern politics, claims he primarily created Amina as a writing challenge. Deraspe was loath to give him any time or attention in the film, but naturally had to include him for the sake of story. “One thing is for sure, we cannot trust the guy.” She says, “He didn’t relent, even in the face of great efforts and very strong emotions. So my concern was to not give him a platform for more lies. But at the same time, I had to let Sandra find closure and let viewers form their own opinions of him.” This closure comes in the form of an electrifying moment near the end of the film when Sandra surprises McMaster at a conference and sits down with him to talk about what happened.
For Sandra at least, the film seems to have a happy ending. After being able to confront McMaster with what he put her through, she comes home to Skype with her very real girlfriend, who is visibly moved by this emotional milestone. Sandra seems to have taken away some valuable life lessons from what happened, telling us, “I learned that nothing replaces real-life encounters, chemistry and relationships! I am also much more cautious about how I read the news; brief coverage can be misleading.”
We spend an enormous part of our daily lives being privy to snippets of media; tweets, headlines, third-hand blog accounts. Yet most of us are not nearly as discerning and skeptical about what we read as we should be. Just like in online dating, there are ways to massage the facts to suit your agenda. We could all stand to be a little more cautious about the people we interact with online and the information we choose to believe.
Francesca Lewis is a queer feminist writer from Yorkshire, UK. She writes for Curve Magazine and The Human Experience as well as writing short fiction and working on a novel. Her ardent love of American pop culture is matched only by her passion for analyzing it completely to death.