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Here’s How This Filmmaker Made a Sundance Doc About an Online Affair Turned Thriller

Here's How This Filmmaker Made a Sundance Doc About an Online Affair Turned Thriller

When my friend Sandra became the center of an international investigation involving the Syrian secret police, the US Department of Homeland Security and a lesbian Arab revolutionary, I knew there was a film to be made here. Well, at the very least there was a fantastic story that needed to be told, because the shape the film would take wasn’t obvious at first. There wasn’t actually anything to film, since all of it had happened online: the love affair between Sandra and Amina—the gay girl in Damascus—the news of Amina’s kidnapping and the subsequent investigation that raised questions about her identity. All of this was taking place in the virtual sphere, with all the key players sitting in front of a computer or an electronic device in different parts of the world. How was I to turn this all into a story with moving images and sound?

READ MORE: Here’s How This Director Shot An Amazingly Authentic Coming-of-Age Film About Gang Life

My other concern was that I had this gut feeling that the story wasn’t finished yet. This is rather good news when shooting a documentary. More was to come, and I had to set the proper groundwork for it to happen. 

So I decided to have the story told by the various people who had experienced it from their own particular perspectives. I felt they would be interested in meeting and getting to know Sandra too, since she was depicted as Amina’s girlfriend until she became the one who suffered such a personal betrayal and humiliation. And I knew Sandra needed to be recognized as the bright woman she is and not just a poor naive girl who was fooled by her fake lover.

She would gain a lot by having face-to-face encounters with all the educated, well-informed journalists and activists who were, in one way or another, involved with Amina as well. So I asked Sandra to accompany me on a trip around the world. For the first time, the people involved in this story were going to meet with each other in person. And shooting the film with the smallest crew possible—that is, just Sandra and I, with me doing camera and sound—allowed for friendship and trust to be developed.

We were a small team. We were mobile. We could change our plans and meet last-minute with a Syrian activist who had found refuge in Washington, DC. We were not seen as a threat by anyone, not even at the Israeli border, even though I had just gotten my passport stamped in Lebanon. Not even by the hoaxer himself, whom we decided to follow and surprise in the basement of a Turkish university. Yes, in doing the film, the story developed a lot further, and Sandra could find closure…

At the end of this trip, I knew I had a film. Well, I had the bones of a film. Since I didn’t want to do a talking-head flick, the remainder of my work would involve putting meat on the bones.

I told Sandra that I needed the freedom to work the fantasy—the fictional part of the film—on my own. We had an agreement right from the beginning. She gave me carte blanche so that I could dive into the subject, make an honest film and tell the story from all perspectives. She was totally understanding, though she was curious and would want to take a sneak peak in the editing room, or would ask which actress would be portraying Amina.

With the second part of the shoot, I wanted to give viewers a taste of the erotic and exotic relationship that took place between Amina and Sandra in the midst of revolution and of all the fear and excitement. Narrow pink and ochre-coloured streets, veiled women, fearless thugs, secret meetings, the female body. Though I avoided actual reenactments, I used some of their components to get viewers’ mental imagery going. I gave them glimpses of images and sounds and allowed their imaginations into something bigger, smoother, more vivid.

My tools were fiction itself, mixed with YouTube clips and official media archives. I was cherry-picking from sources everywhere to orchestrate the fantasy. Then I just had to make it visually fluid and shape it with a coherent soundtrack.

It’s only once I had a final cut that I showed Sandra the end result. We were both pretty nervous. She watched it through without a word, although she shed some tears at one point. At the end of the screening, her first words were, “This story is not only about me.” True… it’s about the Syrians, the media, and ultimately, about us, Westerners and how we see and experience the world.

A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile” will launch theatrically and on SundanceNow Doc Club on July 24.

READ MORE: SundanceNow Doc Club Acquires “A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile”

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