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Review: Documentary ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’ Is ‘Catfish’ With International Implications

Review: Documentary 'A Gay Girl in Damascus' Is 'Catfish' With International Implications

Sharing that the titular character in “A Gay Girl In Damascus: The Amina Profile” is a hoax seems like a giant spoiler, particularly when given without warning in a review’s first sentence. However, given that the digital scheme was covered by The New York Times, NPR, The Guardian, and more news outlets in 2011, that fact doesn’t feel unnecessarily revealing. What’s most interesting about the documentary isn’t that Amina Arraf wasn’t real, it’s who was behind her online character and the real world implications it had during the Arab Spring. 

Director Sophie Deraspe discovered Amina’s story before the media did, as she watched Sandra Bagaria, her friend in Montreal, fall in love with a woman she met online in 2011. The woman was Amina Arraf, a writer whose blog, “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” shared her experiences as an out lesbian during the upheaval and danger in Syria. Amina’s blog and social profiles attracted international attention, and when her cousin said that she’d been kidnapped by the secret police, Sandra took action from across the world to try to rescue her girlfriend.

As more activists and journalists in a number of countries joined the cause, however, Amina’s story began to fall apart under the scrutiny. The documentary feels more like a mystery and almost like fiction itself as it unravels the multiple layers behind Amina’s real identity. The revelation is jaw-dropping and infuriating, and the outrage only increases as each additional detail is uncovered. “A Gay Girl in Damascus” could be likened to an expanded episode of “Catfish,” with many of the same elements present in the narrative, from the investigation to the profile creator’s reaction to being caught.

Where this documentary diverges from the MTV series is in its aftermath. The consequences for the betrayal aren’t simply a broken heart, though Sandra certainly could claim that. “Amina” drew a lot of international attention, particularly during her supposed kidnapping, which diverted time, focus, and resources from real Syrians who were in danger during that period. The person behind the Amina profile didn’t merely dupe Sandra; instead, that person caused a panic around the world as people contacted various government and aid agencies, and journalists devoted their time to her story. The U.S. State Department even investigated the disappearance. Interspersing the narrative with clips of unrelated violence in Syria, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” attempts to right this wrong. It never loses its focus on Amina and Sandra, but it does allow the audience glimpses of the larger human rights violations that happened in the region. 

Despite the film’s title, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” centers more on Amina’s primary victim, Sandra, instead of the created character. It focuses on her search for answers, as well as the aftermath of the discovery. Given her closeness to Sandra, Deraspe gets access to intimate details of the couple’s correspondence over email and Facebook. The text of their interactions is often superimposed over two actresses in shadow, their silhouettes undressing and seducing as the racy messages between Sandra and Amina appear on screen. It dramatizes the dialogue between the two women, but this addition feels overly titillating in contrast to the rest of the film. 

Other reenactments are peppered in throughout Deraspe’s documentary, as a camera follows an actress playing Amina through the streets. With the film running only 84 minutes, these moments feel inessential to telling Sandra and Amina’s story, which is shared more eloquently through interviews with Sandra, as well as the other activists and journalists who invested themselves in Amina. The story at the heart of “A Gay Girl in Damascus” is engrossing enough and doesn’t require the extra padding. [B]

“A Gay Girl In Damascus” is now playing in limited release and is also available via SundanceNow Doc Club.

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