Imagine discovering a blog written by an attractive, vivacious woman who lives in a city torn by civil war. Imagine corresponding with that woman, falling in love with her, and receiving erotic messages and nude photos from her. Then imagine hearing that this online lover has been kidnapped, probably by her repressive country's secret police.
"Imagine" is, in fact, the key word when discussing A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile. Because Amina Arraf — out lesbian, enemy of the Assad regime, a Syrian-American whose English skills reflected a childhood spent partly in the U.S. — never existed. The blog, begun in 2011, operated for just 112 days.
As Catfish viewers and chat-room burn victims know, ascertaining a virtual correspondent's true identity is a tricky matter. The case of Amina was further complicated by her claim to live in a Arab-world dictatorship where electronic communication was circumscribed, and both political and sexual nonconformity were hazardous. For most Westerners, sympathizing with her was only natural.
Sandra Bagaria, a Frenchwoman living in Montreal, went further. She corresponded with Amina regularly — daily when possible — and flirted with her often. There are even hints of jealousy in the online text messages Bagaria sent to her phantom girlfriend and that scroll across the screen in Canadian director Sophie Deraspe's documentary.
Bagaria may have had the most intimate relationship with Amina, but the fictional Syrian also seduced Western journalists. Her blog was taken as factual by many mainstream outlets, notably The Guardian. It was only when Amina was supposedly arrested, and her international supporters turned to the U.S. State Department for help, that the blogger's existence vaporized.
Even those who followed Amina's rise and fall in the ultimately chastened media will find Gay Girl a nifty piece of detective work. It's also an intriguing journey along the strands of the web made possible by the Internet: The trail leads to a Syrian anti-Assad organizer in Lebanon, a liberal Israeli activist in Tel Aviv, a purple-haired lesbian blogger in San Francisco and the offices of the Electronic Intifada in Chicago and NPR in Washington, where Andy Carvin, then the organization's media strategist, was an Amina doubter. (NPR's reporting when the ruse was discovered is here, but it will, of course, spoil some of the reveals of the documentary.)
It's probably best not to reveal much else about the story, which carries Deraspe and Bagaria far from Damascus. Ultimately, Bagaria confronts the person who created Amina, in a sequence that disappoints. Emotionally, it must have been important for the woman who thought she was Amina's girlfriend to question the person who invented the sexy Syrian. Journalistically, however, the movie would be stronger if the interrogation had been conducted by someone more confrontational and less emotionally involved. The author of the Amina fraud should squirm a little more.
Deraspe hired Turkish actress Nilay Olcay to play the role of an Amina-like woman on a streets of Damascus-like city. She mostly moves ethereally to Sam Shalabi's Arabic-trance score, but is also shown in a few sultry nude vignettes. These are likely meant to visualize Amina's appeal to Bagaria. But they can also be seen as, awkwardly, continuing the sexual fantasies of the blog's creator. Even the makers of A Gay Girl in Damascus, it seems, can't quite let go of Amina's vivid, if imaginary, erotic allure.