False Representation, by Dayne Linford
As the Syrian uprising begins and world attention turns to what would eventually become the central conflict of the Arab Spring and the wider Middle East, a small blog, featured on a lesbian website, titled “A Gay Girl in Damascus”, begins to develop as a focal point of sympathy and representation, providing clarity and moral certainty for a largely western audience trying to understand a region and conflict about which we’ve been steadily misinformed for decades. Written by Amina Arraf, the blog’s lucid prose and vibrant personality provided a locus for political actors, both inside and outside the conflict and especially served to draw the sympathy of a Western audience intrigued by seeing the great contemporary civil rights movement in their countries, gay rights, played out and woven into the Syrian revolution, validating in their eyes the latter conflict as justified, righteous, and modern. She was poetic, idealistic, deeply sensual, deeply committed to human rights. And then she disappeared, kidnapped by Syrian authorities in a neighboring country, and the sudden swell of political pressure to secure her freedom and safety coalesced into a realization the world over, a revelation about Amina herself – that she didn’t exist.
A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile is the story of Sandra Bagaria, the woman who first was the best evidence of Amina’s existence, then the culprit for her deceit, then, finally, the investigative reporter determined to uncover and lay bare the roots of a scandal that perversely shook international faith in a very real uprising and eclipsed the newsworthiness of the massacre and struggle of an entire country against a totalitarian regime. Bagaria began an online relationship with Amina more than a year before the creation of the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog, and had a small hand in the blog’s creation, advising Amina that her suggestion of creating such a blog would be a good outlet for her and display a perspective on events in Syrian rarely seen. As the conflict heated up with Amina’s apparent involvement in it and endangerment thereby, her relationship with Bagaria similarly began to take on greater tones of intimacy and involvement, both considering themselves in a relationship with the other. At first, the blog was fairly insular, drawing attention from some Syrian activists and others who trafficked the ostensibly lesbian host website Lez Get Real, until the publication of a post titled, “My father, my hero,” detailing Amina’s attempted arrest by two Syrian soldiers held off by her father’s political ties, after which post Amina details her flight throughout the country with her father. When Amina disappeared, it was Sandra who did everything she could, turning to news organizations and popularizing Amina’s already considerable profile to draw attention to her plight. And, when it was discovered Amina was a fiction, it was Sandra to whom everyone turned for answers.
But – perversely, disturbingly, and fascinatingly – Sandra was as taken in as everyone else, but clearly on a far more intimate level. As the revelations kept coming, revealing the true identity of Amina’s creator, “her”interactions with other bloggers, and, especially, Middle Eastern activists, and the woman who’s images were stolen and used for the blog, Sandra’s pain and injury deepened, and the wider political consequences, completely unintended by Amina’s creator in his ignorance and self-regard, became more and more apparent, and more and more devastating.
But this is just the story itself, more than interesting enough to check out Amina, but the telling is what matters in film. Very much of a piece with other Middle Eastern documentaries like The Green Prince in its use of political thriller conventions, what makes Amina especially interesting is its deeper analysis of notions of identity and their use and abuse in the midst of political crisis and media reporting. All discussions of the Middle East deal inevitably in the tangled web of identity that surrounds post-colonial unrest – questions of Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Palestine, Israel, Syria, liberal, conservative, radical, male, female, and now, gay or straight. As a piece, though largely using Bagaria’s ultimate insider-outsider perspective as a throughline, Amina as directed by Sophia Deraspe is a piece obsessed with the labels we use as identification, both to conceal and reveal, and the way those labels were abused for optimum click-worthiness by Amina’s creator. This is especially a piece where the observer’s reactions to the deception reveals just as much about them as about the nature of the deception and the deceiver – the use of deeply personal and sometimes fatal identifications as Syrian, American, gay, democratic, revolutionary, etc., hits these people directly because, while they blog, vlog, record, post and comment like the rest of the super-involved internet world, they are also actively involved on the ground, risking their lives daily for a bid at recognition and assistance from the wider world. Using Bagaria as interview, Deraspe takes care to include these figures in her film, providing their perspective and, ultimately, revealing their tireless efforts first to free Amina, then to reveal her actual identity, and always to fight for Syrian independence and democratic states in the Middle East.
What this discussion of identity dovetails into is an analysis of representation. This is the beating heart of the film – the damage delivered by a deceptive, albeit not malicious, assumption of representative status by the creator of Amina of the right to the perspective shared by the actual Syrians involved in the conflict. His protests that he was simply looking to draw attention to the conflict only serve to underscore his ultimately devastating ignorance – no world event has been so characterized by the unfiltered self-representation of the participants as the Arab Spring in general and the Syrian revolution in particular. In many respects, that’s the point – as a movement, the Arab Spring is many ways about the attempt by Middle Easterners to wrest control of the world’s perception of the Middle East away from the white, western, Eurocentric news media and return it to its rightful owners, themselves. Thus, the deception here is in no way benign, and actively served to damage the efforts at self-recognition by those involved, cheapening their online presences and bringing unnecessary and harmful questions as to their legitimacy or even reality to the fore, as opposed to the centrality of the conflict itself, its legitimacy and reality, from which the attention of the wider world should never have wandered. Deraspe makes this point clear, focusing on the Syrian interviewees, especially telling in the moment when Amina’s true identity is revealed, when Deraspe cuts to those Syrians and Middle Easterners who fought so hard from her freedom, silent, shocked, pained, demoralized, so much so that even now, years later, their frustration and pain makes them speechless.
On the same level, the true success of Deraspe’s film, despite being made by a white Canadian filmmaker and seen largely through the eyes of a French-Canadian news reporter, is in her efforts to return representation of the conflict, and also representation of the relationship, back to the people actually involved in it. Bagaria is the prime source for the relationship because she’s the only person honestly involved in it, and the many Middle Eastern interviewees are treated as being the only accurate source for the nature of the conflict and what it truly feels like to be involved, especially now, some four years following the Amina scandal, during which the Syrian revolution has become a full blown civil war and a nexus of conflict within the Middle East. Wisely, Deraspe concludes the film with thoughts and reflections of these bloggers and activists, who have personally been threatened, driven from their country, and had their families threatened by the regime. A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile, is much more than an analysis of deception on the internet or even of the complicated nature of internet-based activism – it is an attempt to return the right of telling their story to those who actually lived it, to simply provide an forum not for Deraspe’s conclusions on the Syrian conflict or on Amina, but for the journeys and the conclusions of those most deeply involved and affected, who interacted with Amina, tried to rescue her, and, effectively, buried her. As such, Amina is documentary filmmaking of the highest sort, an opportunity to expand the horizons of and provoke response from the viewer through the generous and honest reflections of the participants, an incredible achievement that cuts like a knife through fraught circumstance to the heart of representation, both democratic and artistic.