A GAY GIRL IN DAMASCUS: THE AMINA PROFILE
Director: Sophie Deraspe
Running Time: 1:24
Release Date: 7/24/15 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 23, 2015
There is a fascinating story of deception at the heart of A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile. Director Sophie Deraspe trusts that fact perhaps too much. The ramifications of the seemingly simple deception are many. The movie only touches upon the most important ones before falling back on a story of personal betrayal that is the least compelling of the lot.
The story of Amina Arraf undoubtedly reveals systemic failures on the part of journalists and activists across the globe, as well as plenty of individual examples of poor judgment from otherwise intelligent people. It's the story everyone wanted to hear—of a gay woman persecuted by the oppressive regime in Syria on account of her sexuality, of that same woman's fight to be who she is despite the potential consequences, of her father's strength to defend her, of her participation in and reporting on a revolution to overthrow that dictatorship.
Of course, it had to be true because they knew the situation in that country at the time of the Arab Spring. It had to be true because her story was the story of so many other people in Syria. It had to be true because it received so much attention when all of those other stories from people in Syria didn't.
In case you haven't noticed, this is building up to a pretty obvious punch. Our entryway into story of Amina is Sandra Bagaria, a French woman living in Canada who meets Amina on the Internet. The two begin a relationship through various forms of online communication. A lot of it is sexual or otherwise intimate. Sandra and her friends explain how smitten she was with this Arab woman. Deraspe recreates what Amina's life might have been like, wandering the streets and lying in bed naked while communicating with Bagaria. We never see Amina's face.
When Amina started a blog to document her experiences, Bagaria shared it with all of her online friends. One entry was of particular note. In it, Amina tells the story of how the Syrian secret police came knocking on her door and how her father, emboldened by his political ties, told them to leave his daughter alone. That post caught the attention of the Guardian, and from there, an assortment of newspapers and television news programs across the world started running their own stories about Amina and her courage.
It becomes a media firestorm when Amina's cousin emails Bagaria to tell inform her that Amina has been captured and imprisoned by the Syrian government. Online campaigns to free her begin. People contact the U.S. State Department to intervene, since Amina is a U.S. citizen.
Deraspe and Bagaria travel to various places—San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Beirut, etc.—and meet with people who were captivated by Amina's story. They are journalists, bloggers, and activists, and they tell us what is already evident. Amina's story was important, not only because of the injustice toward her but also because she represented the injustice toward everyone in Syria.
Deraspe spends about half of the movie tracing the history of Bagaria's involvement with Amina and how Amina's tale became a rallying cry for people who had no vested interest in the situation in Syria. It's interesting, but it turns out that it's simply background information for the actual meat of this story. A lot of the details in this lengthy section, which are already somewhat repetitively presented, don't really matter in the bigger picture.
When the truth of Amina's story is exposed (Even though it was a publicized event, it's probably best to leave out the specifics here), the movie focuses on far more important matters—of the responsibility of journalists to do due diligence in covering a story, of what could possibly drive a person to engage in an extended deceit, of how a lie could either help or hurt the truth. It's messy stuff. One person says that the Amina incident damages the cause of those fighting in Syria. Another argues that perhaps bringing the situation in Syria to light excuses the questionable means used to do so. Deraspe certainly takes advantage of Amina's story to show us what is actually happening, with horrifying videos of savage beatings perpetrated by the Syrian military and one of what we assume to be a real abduction when the topic of Amina's detention arises.
There are no easy answers, which makes Deraspe's attempt to provide us with one so frustrating. In the end, it comes down to Bagaria. She was, undoubtedly, wronged. Her emotions were betrayed, and she was manipulated for someone else's odd ambitions. It's of utmost importance to her that she receive some kind of closure (strangely, from a person whose every statement shouldn't be trusted), but Bagaria's feelings almost seem inconsequential when juxtaposed with the assortment of moral and ethical issues surrounding them.
A documentary's form isn't just the filmmaking techniques (which, here, are a mixed bag of the usual talking-head segments combined with enigmatic, stylish recreations). It's also the narrative's structure and focus, through which the filmmaker tells us what's most important about a real story that might contain a multitude of vital elements. Unfortunately, A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile puts too much of its weight on the weakest narrative rung.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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