By Hans Pedersen, August 2015 Issue.
Two undressed women are making out in the hot and heavy opening scenes of A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile. These scenes, from the documentary written and directed by Sophie Deraspe, are a bit deceptive, but well-suited for this slight-of-hand tale of a blogger who’s writing about life as a lesbian in war-torn Damascus.
The fascinating story is told from the perspective of Sandra Bagaria, a woman living in Canada who sparked an online romance with the author of a blog called “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” The blogger, by the name of Amina Arraf, wrote about living in war-torn Syria. But what starts out as a love story and political thriller unexpectedly turns into a cautionary tale.
The two become acquainted as Amina tells Sandra she grew up in both Syria and the U.S., with the text from their online conversations appearing on screen. Their virtual romance quickly grows steamy, as an actress plays Amina in several recreated moments.
Soon there’s a culmination of interest around the globe about the author of “A Gay Girl in Damascus” and even The Guardian publishes an interview with Amina from Syria, conducted online.
Among the re-enactments are interviews with other bloggers and journalists, including a gay Middle Eastern reporter who talks about how the boldly written blog empowered the anti-Assad movement in Syria.
And then, one day, the author of the blog abruptly vanished, and Sandra learns from a cousin that Amina was kidnapped by the Syrian secret police. Sandra worries about her girlfriend’s potentially horrific fate.
But then, more staggering revelations upend Sandra’s life, throwing her romance with the famed blogger into turmoil. And when the U.S. State Department and CNN start digging into Amina’s background, the story turns downright surreal. Rather than spoil the secrets of the film with a Google search, viewers might choose to watch the documentary with a clean slate.
This fascinating storyline flips around 180 degrees from a Middle Eastern uprising documentary into a cautionary tale about deception and the illusory allure of the web. Watching the truth play out will certainly be a different experience for audiences who already know the story, compared to viewers who have not heard about “A Gay Girl in Damascus.”
The swift pacing and clever method of storytelling help insure the truth is kept a secret in the first part of the film, which culminates with a surprising conclusion. The director even lands an interview with the elusive blogger that caused the firestorm. And, in the course of the movie, Deraspe explores the ramifications of the surprising deception for traditional media and online activism.
This captivating Canadian documentary, which premiered in the World Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is available via the SundanceNow Doc Club streaming service here.
Director and leading lesbian discuss new documentary
The blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus” caused an international stir when it popped up online during the Syrian uprising in 2011.
The author, Amnia Arraf, became a bit of a hero for people battling the draconian Assad regime, as her blog attracted an international following.
Emails exchanged between Arraf and Sandra Bagaria, a Frenchwoman living in Canada, eventually lead to long-distance dating – despite the extraordinary circumstances.
Concerns escalate following word that Syrian police have kidnapped Arraf, and the truth turns out to be stranger than fiction.
Following the documentary’s premier at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Echo caught up with Bagaria as well as Sophie Deraspe, the film’s director.
Echo: Could you tell us what first inspired you as a director to share this story?
Deraspe: It’s an amazing story that exposes many important issues in our contemporary world. Plus, it starts with a very personal account with an online love story and then it spreads to broader issues that concern the world and media and politics… It’s so rich, plus there’s a thriller. It’s all there for a good story.
Echo: Could you talk a little bit about the fear you felt when you first received the letter that Amina had disappeared?
Bagaria: I received that email from her cousin, Reyna … she was explaining Amina got kidnapped. I have to say, it’s something I had expected because when you’re dating someone who is in a war zone and so outspoken, you can only think that something of this magnitude could happen. So, of course, I felt so very destabilized, very emotional when I learned the news. The only think you can think of is finding a way to find the person, to create some buzz and find out where she was.
Echo: Can you talk about the level of betrayal you felt from the deception? I don’t want to reveal too much (to readers) in the interview…
Bagaria: It’s a two-step feeling. First one is the physical aspect of it … Of course, the second step I didn’t expect. But you know what, I was writing to someone, that’s the only thing I was caring about.
Echo: Do you think your sexuality played a role in this deception?
Bagaria: Probably it made it more attractive to media, that’s for sure, not even a doubt. Regarding myself, I think you can be in a relationship in many different ways … For me, it was not a big difference.
Deraspe: Even before, the success of the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog had a lot to do with the fact she was a lesbian. In a country where woman are [supposed to be] covered and submissive, having this woman outspoken about religion, sexuality, politics and being openly gay in such a conservative country – that made her attractive to a Western audience.
Echo: It can feel like there’s a vacuum of information about the conflict in Syria in the U.S. media. Are you hoping your film will help fill that void a bit?
Bagaria: What I hope and what we understood from the first two screenings is [that] it’s important to remember there are still people out there who are trying to talk and are being detained. We should be listening more closely to other people who are explaining it on the ground and in the field … This is where the timing is important, even more for blogging, even more for people who have to raise their voices and keep fighting. Because a lot of people are trying to keep on living and stay with their family and stay protected.
Echo: What was it like seeing the movie in front of an audience?
Bagaria: It was great because we had four protagonists from the documentary with us, so it was great to see them react … I was super happy about their reaction … They had a very specific perspective, and we’re bringing a wider one, a broader one. So, they learn a lot of stuff that they didn’t see because they were so focused on their part of the investigation …
Deraspe: It was a journey that we went through, shooting this film, going around the world and meeting with all of those people … We crossed some frontiers, some borders and meeting with an audience was the third part of the journey. Now it’s out there and it’s their journey as well.