Sophie Deraspe’s documentary A Gay Girl In Damascus: The Amina Profile is structured a little like a mystery, with a surprise twist about halfway through—although anyone who’s followed the news over the past half-decade should see the movie’s title and know the story. For those who don’t, there are spoilers ahead… that is, if a well-publicized news item can be “spoiled.” The film is about the curious case of Amina Abdallah Arraf Al Omari, a Syrian lesbian who in 2011 developed a following for a blog about her underground community’s political struggles, and then sparked an international furor when reports came out that she’d been arrested. The twist? There was no Amina. A man named Tom MacMaster was writing the blog, either to call attention to the plight of LGBT activists abroad (which was his contention) or to get his kicks messing with the heads of gay women, one of whom he engaged in an intense, erotic online relationship.
A Gay Girl In Damascus raises a number of important questions about the unexpected, sometimes-troubling byproducts of lives increasingly spent in the virtual world. As a straight American post-graduate student living in Scotland, MacMaster’s take on the politics of the Middle East had little-to-no influence, but by adopting a persona, he could claim the moral high ground in arguments. He turned a complicated situation into an easily understood narrative, which became a problem only when Amina’s followers started petitioning their governments to take up her cause, without bothering to confirm her existence. Some of those supporters admit to Deraspe that they wanted to believe in Amina, because she reinforced their opinions. And when they later tried to verify the facts of Amina’s life, they were sneered at by their peers for being insufficiently progressive. There’s a valuable lesson here for activist journalists: The “journalist” part should always take precedence.
Beyond treating this story like a potboiler, Deraspe does her best to make A Gay Girl In Damascus cinematic. She alternates nicely framed and photographed interviews with some fairly expressive dramatic reenactments. Some of these are pretty powerful. The lyrical shots of an actress playing Amina—walking through an approximation of a busy Syrian street—creates a sense of the character’s fantasy appeal, and serves as a reminder of the real crises and human-rights abuses that the media missed while they were caught up in MacMaster’s fiction.
But at other points in the documentary, when Deraspe is recreating the sexy flirting between MacMaster and Amina’s Montreal “girlfriend” Sandra Bagaria, the overt attempt to titillate is more questionable. A Gay Girl In Damascus’ overall emphasis on the Sandra/Amina story feels excessive. The documentary mostly works as a kind of sober-minded spin on Catfish, probing the way lax verification standards facilitate hoaxes, and explaining why that matters. Too often, though, Deraspe falls into that same trap that her film describes, by aiming for drama over insight.
Her worst decision is to make the interviews with MacMaster into ambush confrontations, led by Bagaria. There are so many questions that should be asked of the faux-Amina: about whether he harmed the causes he claimed to support, and about how he squares his political convictions with his sleazier private correspondence. Instead, A Gay Girl In Damascus’ storytelling and interviews lean toward sensationalism, which obscures the film’s main point—making it less about systemic problems than about one person’s hurt feelings.