Canada, 2015. Directed by Sophie Deraspe. 84 minutes.
Over the course of five months in 2011, an aspiring Syrian-American writer named Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari gained international recognition as the author of A Gay Girl in Damascus, a blog detailing her experiences as an out lesbian in a country torn by civil war against a repressive regime. On the sixth of June, her cousin posted a distressing message to the blog: agents of the Syrian government had abducted Amina and were holding her captive. Bloggers, journalists and activists across the globe mobilized to pressure the government to release her. Their efforts revealed a shocking twist:
Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari didn’t actually exist.
Her writings were the work of Tom MacMaster, an American living in Scotland. Sophie Deraspe’s documentary A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile doesn’t tell his story; the real protagonist is Sandra Bagaria, a French-Canadian living in Montreal. Bagaria met “Amina” on a dating site and had conducted an online romance with her before MacMaster even launched the blog, but since the two had never met in person, she found out the truth about her girlfriend at the same time everyone else did.
Deraspe is at her best when exploring the personal damage caused by MacMaster’s betrayal and its exposure, and Bagaria is a willing, engaging and charismatic subject. The socio-political ramifications are also examined. Journalists gleefully ponder the sensational attention they can get by writing about the “gay girl from Demascus.” Activists express outrage at the media resources tied up in the hunt for “Amina” instead of covering what was really going on in Syria.
MacMaster enters the story fully during the third act, culminating in a somewhat anticlimactic face-to-face meeting with Bagaria. He attempts a rudimentary (and ultimately unsatisfactory) explanation for his actions, but remains an enigmatic figure. Deraspe finds herself caught in a difficult situation: she seems not to want to give him any further attention (I can’t blame her for that). But involving him at all stokes our interest; we understandably want to get to know the man behind the character, leading to inevitable disappointment we don’t.
However, this doesn’t detract from the power of A Gay Girl in Damascus’s first hour. Overall, it’s a fascinating examination of the pros and cons of the modern world of technology and communication. It’s easier to connect with like minds in foreign countries, easier to disseminate a message, easier to motivate a network. But relationships remain as complex as ever, if not more so.
Originally published by Cinema Axis.