It was, in many respects, the perfect story: an out lesbian in Damascus, Syria blogs about the 2011 regime uprisings and casts a valuable light upon several human rights issues in dire need of illumination. But as “The Amina Profile”, which premiered at the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival on April 25 at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, shows, there was one crucial element missing — the blogger herself. Sophie Deraspe directed this documentary that, while containing an ending that’s no surprise, manages to maintain suspense throughout its 85 minutes.
“The Amina Profile” starts by recreating early chat logs between Amina Arraf, the lesbian blogger behind “A Gay Girl in Damascus”, and her online girlfriend, Sandra Bagaria. It quickly escalates into erotic talk, which gives the viewer the impression that a face-to-face meeting will soon follow. None does, of course, for various reasons: Skype is blocked in Syria, the police are threatening Amina, and the police arrest and abduct Amina.
It’s that last point that really drives the Hot Docs movie, as Bagaria reaches out to friends and media persons to try and find Amina. As the search grows bigger and more people become aware of the case, suspicions arise that Amina doesn’t really exist. People report attending the same meetings as Amina but not being there the week she was; although many have her and her cousin, Rania Ismail, on Facebook, nobody has actually met her; and there are inconsistencies in places and events Amina has previously relayed to Bagaria.
Eventually, the true author of the “A Gay Girl in Damascus” blog is revealed to be a middle-aged white American male, Tom MacMaster with the subject of the photographs he’s been using a Croatian woman, Jelena Lecic. MacMaster’s reasoning was he wanted to help assist the Syrian cause by contributing his knowledge and opinions, but felt he couldn’t do so under his current identity because he wouldn’t be taken seriously. But in assuming the identity of Amina Arraf, MacMaster ends up doing far more harm than good by damaging the credibility of those involved in the Arab Spring and misdirecting media attention that could have been shone on other — real — issues.
Deraspe does a fine job in pulling together a cast of characters to examine this catfish story from all angles, with Bagaria leading the way by being so open with her experiences. There’s a scene at the end where Bagaria confronts MacMaster in person, and how it turns out is more revealing of MacMaster’s personality than anything he’d said or done previously. However, her choice in doing so highlights a potential problem: after MacMaster has lied so thoroughly to so many people and nothing he says can be trusted now, why give him any sort of forum when that attention can be so much more valuably used elsewhere?
For most of “The Amina Profile”, Deraspe knits together a movie that’s taut and suspenseful, with a skilled editor’s hand in constructing a believable chronological narrative. It’s when she reaches the end of the film that she falters by giving actual screen time to MacMaster, undoing just a bit of the magic she’d so carefully built up before. There is one moment in the movie that feels like the best retribution possible for MacMaster, although one gets the sense that it doesn’t impact him nearly as much as it should.
Despite a couple of bumps and loose threads, Deraspe manages to underscore the message of how important it is to not blindly believe everything you read or hear about — even when a seemingly trustworthy publication like The Guardian purports to have conducted an interview with the person in question.