In 2011, Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari wins the hearts of readers the world over with her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus. Sandra Bagaria, a Montrealer, is one of those readers. Attracted by Amina’s boldness, sexual clarity, and vision for the future of Syria, Sandra embarks on an erotic online journey with Amina. Their relationship deepens as the Syrian uprising is met with violence by the regime; random abductions and beatings become the norm.
When Amina goes missing later that year, her disappearance prompts panic from her loyal readership. Risking their well-being, friends of Amina rally together to ensure her safety. But when Sandra launches an international campaign to locate her, accounts of Amina just don’t seem to add up.
With the help of journalists and activists from around the world, an Edinburgh-based man is revealed to be the author of Amina. But Tom MacMaster, with whom Sandra meets for the first time in the film, is not the end of the story.
In The Amina Profile, fact blend with fiction, reality melts into the virtual world, and truth becomes a question of life and death. We sat down with Sandra and Sophie Deraspe (the film’s director) to parse the Amina fantasy, how the internet creates myths, and the process of fictionalizing reality both online and in film.
What made you trust Sophie with this sensitive material?
Sandra: When it happened three years ago, a good friend of mine worked with Sophie. And he told me, “I’ve never seen anyone else shoot women’s bodies so beautifully.” That stuck with me. Sophie was a friend of mine, not in the inner circle but just outside, and she married a very close friend of mine. When the Amina incident happened, I believed I had to share it with someone. I didn’t want a very close friend because some parts were very embarassing and I didn’t want to feel judged. One day, on my scooter — everything happens on my scooter — I decided I wanted to tell Sophie. It was one of the best decisions I made. Sophie was sensitive to the story in a way I never expected, she understood all of the layers. She went through all of the archives, just as I did, so her experience of Amina was as close to mine as possible.
We have the fantasy of the oriental woman with a fierce nature, in a country where women are supposed to be suppressed and submissive.
Can you speak to the process of making tangible what never existed, i.e. creating a visual for Amina, a phantom and a fiction?
Sophie: Reenactments in documentaries can be very dangerous. They can be cheesy. What prompted the idea of a Syrian woman with sensuality and an activist nature, who attended secret meetings, was the Amina fantasy itself. We were all driven by that fantasy. By “we”, I mean the author, who was the person behind Amina, and then Sandra and all of the other people who became involved in her story. That includes the blog’s followers and the media. It’s not a new phenomenon: we have the fantasy of the oriental woman with a fierce nature, in a country where women are supposed to be suppressed and submissive. She is outspoken, she is cute, she speaks about politics and sexualiy and religion openly. She is this liberal women that we find very heroic. The film is a documentary about a huge fantasy, so I felt I had to share the fantasy with the audience. Then they would be struck by the brutal reality, just like what Sandra and the media and the Syrian activists had to go through.
Lesbian eroticism was a driving force behind the Gay Girl in Damascus blog’s success. How did you capture this in the film, without exploiting or compromising the other aspects of the story?
Sophie: Their relationship was erotic, it was sexual. Not only that, but it was a lot of that. Amina would talk about being a lesbian in a Muslim country, so avoiding it wouldn’t have been true to the story. It was part of her success. It’s also part of how online relationships are happening nowaday — a lot of people have sexual connections via social media. So it wouldn’t be true to them as well, to avoid that sensuality. When Sandra shared the archives, she didn’t have any recommendations on how to tell the story. She gave me carte blanche so I could take the story and make it my own, with respect with what happened, but make it a great film with the freedom of tangling with all of the layers.
How did you decide on a narrative thrust of a film, including the academic or philosophical dimensions of the situation without getting so caught up in them that the average audience member loses interest?
Sophie: I have to say, it was a challenge. Sandra didn’t see any of the other cuts, and she was amazed at how it all became so contained.
Sandra: At the beginning, we drew out all the connections between everyone. It was incredibly complex. I was intrigued at how she would combine all of the layers. The editing and direction is so smooth and seamless that it connects all of the layers together without the viewer even noticing.
We still need this technology, especially for people who are hiding.
Sophie: At first, I didn’t know how the story should be told, but I knew the end wouldn’t be, “It was a hoax! Ta-da!” I knew it was so much more than that. Sometimes I feel disappointed by the way the media talks about the film, because they seem solely interested in exposing the twists and turns, but the movie covers much more than the hoax. By meeting with the people involved with the story, people Sandra had never spoken to before in Syria, we understood how deep the impact truly was. These people risked their own lives and their family’s lives, because once you’re threatened by the regime they don’t stop at you. I wanted these people to have the last word, not Tom.
It felt like you were deliberately putting the power back in the hands of the victims of the hoax, and not with the person who perpetrated it. But you also didn’t paint Tom as a villainous, perverse person. You didn’t demonize him.
Sophie: We spent many hours talking about the guy, among ourselves and with everyone we met. But these are all speculations, and I wanted to stay in the realm of facts as much as possible. I didn’t want to interpret his mental state. The audience can make its own conclusions after perceiving the person. We didn’t want to give him a platform to talk more about himself, just enough so the audience can make its own judgment. Before meeting with him, we had a few sleepless nights. Sandra was emotional about the encounter.
Sandra: Sophie is my friend, so forcing me was not an option. But I knew it was integral to the documentary. So it was a balance of understanding where I was emotionally and how I wanted the film to progress.
Sophie: Before Sandra came inside, I entered the room where Tom was sitting. When I saw him, I felt the blood drained out of my face. It was a feeling of total deflation. I thought to myself, “Wow, he’s just an ordinary guy.”
The smokescreen of the internet inflates everything and everyone; in your mind, this guy was larger-than-life, he was an imposing figure that had all the control. But in his physicality, he was just a confused, bumbling man.
Sophie: Exactly. Amina, the concept, was huge. The guy was just a guy.
Sandra: It’s insane how our brains work like that. It’s more yourself than anyone else. Actually, it’s all yourself. That’s why I was so frustrated with myself before the encounter.
What prompted both of you to choose the documentary medium? It seems this topic was tailor-made for fiction.
Sophie: Amina works as a fiction, as a narrative. There are real, intelligent, gay activists in Syria. Why don’t they get the attention Amina got? Because they are real. They don’t write perfectly sensual posts every week. They don’t create twists and turns. Because life is not that exciting. But when you concentrate it in a film, or in a blog, then you play with the details to make it exciting. People feel they are going into an adventure. I mean, we also took risks. We crossed the world to meet with the perpetrator. He could have not have been there, or run away.
Sandra: We knew he was giving a conference that day. We organized our schedule to be there in Istanbul that day. When we arrived the day before, we didn’t sleep that night. We had to cross Istanbul to the university where he was. You can see in the film, he was super surprised. When you’re in an online relationship, you can’t even imagine that that person you only know online, only in your own head, would appear out of nowhere in the real world.
Sophie: We wrote to him a couple of months before and told him we wanted to do that film. I wanted him to be able to see my name and Google me or whatever, if he wanted. We told him we were willing to travel to meet him. He answered quickly, but was vague. He never replied again. We thought he would avoid us without saying no properly. A couple of weeks later he tried to sell the blog on Amazon, without contextualizing its place in the conversation or saying it was a fiction. At that point, I felt we were fair enough. We were given a boost to act on our plan.
I knew the end wouldn’t be, “It was a hoax! Ta-da!”
How much experience did you have with online dating before this event, and how has it altered your perception of relationships and attraction on the internet?
Sandra: I had some experience prior. Being gay is not easy for everyone, and it’s hard to meet people sometimes. I don’t like going out. Knowing who’s out there, without going to bars or parties, is hard. So the computer was such an easy tool to access people and connect with tem. It’s a tool that is very valuable right now. It won’t stop, it’ll only get bigger. We still need this technology, especially for people who are hiding and don’t have the luxury of honest face-to-face contact. We met a man recently in Montreal, a young Syrian man, who had never heard of transexual beofre having internet, which was when he turned 21. He thought he was gay, but that label never felt comfortable either. He looked more into it and understood he was transexual.
Sophie: He didn’t even know transexual existed. He felt he was in the wrong body. He felt he was the only one.
Sandra; When he found out there were people to reach out to, it was revolutionary. So of course, we still need this tool. We just need to take more time and introspect on how the technology is shaping the way we think.