True identities

Filmmaker explores the truth behind fake Syrian-American blogger Amina Arraf

In 2011, the words of a gay female blogger living in Syria captivated people around the world … including the woman who fell in love with her

In 2011 the reported kidnapping of Amina Arraf, a beautiful Syrian-American dissident blogger, sent her online followers, human rights workers, and international journalists into overdrive. Amina’s blog, “A Gay Girl In Damascus,” had become an Internet sensation, with its frank dispatches about sexuality and daily life in Damascus under the Syrian government’s deadly crackdown.

Then it was revealed that Amina was a fiction and her abduction a hoax, the whole thing orchestrated by Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old straight man from Georgia. In her new documentary, The Amina Profile, Canadian director Sophie Deraspe leads audiences through the tangled affair: MacMaster, a student at Edinburgh University, had authored the “Gay Girl” blog posts, going so far as to fake Amina’s kidnapping. Deraspe’s film follows Sandra, a Canadian woman who formed an amorous attachment to Amina online and believed herself to be in a relationship with the phantom blogger.

At the same time, The Amina Profile explores orientalist views of Middle Eastern women and the power of the press and social media to warp our understanding of world events. The Canadian film premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and recently finished showing at Canada’s premier documentary festival, Hot Docs, where it won the Special Jury prize in the Canadian category. Sophie Deraspe spoke to Women in the World about fact, fiction, sexual fantasy, and the Western gaze.

Women in the World: Why did you decide to make the The Amina Profile?

Sophie Deraspe: I felt that this was kind of the perfect story. There was the personal angle to it because I had strong access with Sandra. But then it opens to so many important issues in our contemporary world: online identities, media coverage, how do we get to know each other, how do we get to know another culture, how do we interact in a personal way, how are we informed of what’s happening in the world.

This story brings a new perspective to how it all works nowadays. So I felt for a very personal story it opened to something that concerns all of us. It was also like a thriller—even if it’s a documentary it has the feeling of being a fiction film. It’s a documentary about a huge fantasy, and film is the perfect vehicle to share fantasies. Even when we know it’s fiction we cry, we get involved with the characters, so obviously when we know it’s real it works even better.

WITW: What interested you about the identity of a gay Syrian woman?

SD: Amina is the creation of a Western mind for a Western audience. She had everything. She would speak about her sexuality, she was liberal, she would speak about the regime, about religion. She is this type of woman that we can admire, that we can project our fantasies onto in a world where women are supposedly covered and submissive. She has everything that we can connect with. The first European explorers went traveling on the Silk Road and brought back stories from the Middle East of women bathing together, so this orientalist vision of the Middle East is not something new.

Amina is a contemporary image that is our fantasy about the Middle East and has been there for quite a few centuries.

WITW: Why was it interesting to you that Amina ended up being a fake?

SD: Most people who believed in Amina were very bright, intelligent
people who know what’s happening in the world, and Sandra herself is not this naive type of person who would fall into the trap of a fake identity. I think it says a lot about ourselves, what we fall for in terms of media. We have to be so cautious and careful, and we have to develop a new awareness online.

WITW: What did the story of Amina tell you about the media?

SD: The media has a huge responsibility, but we as consumers as well, because we are attracted to sexy stories and sexy characters. The real Amina exists in Syria—the blogger Razan Ghazzawi. She speaks English, she is openly gay, she speaks about the regime and she’s been jailed a couple of times. But she’s not as attractive as Amina because she tells the truth—there aren’t twists and turns in every post. She doesn’t craft reality just to grab the attention of people. She just says the truth and speaks about her reality and the reality of her people.

The media want to be there very quickly and have the scoop, but they don’t fact check, they don’t verify their sources. In this situation The Guardian has a huge responsibility. They conducted an interview with Amina in Damascus, but it was never reported that the conversation never actually happened. Amina and the journalist were supposed to meet in a cafe, but Amina wrote to the journalist and said that she felt she was being followed and asked to have the interview via email.

WITW: What were your feelings about Tom MacMaster (the man behind Amina) and did they change during the making of the film?

SD: I think he’s a very clever person, but with some mental issues.
And at the same time, in the film, I didn’t want to go into this too much, because it’s not a place for my interpretation or Sandra’s interpretation. I wanted the viewer to make up his or her own mind. He knew a lot about Syria. I’m sure he was spending many, many hours a day nourishing the blog, and being aware of what was happening in Syria via social media. I’m so glad we succeeded in meeting him and having him on camera. But at the same time I didn’t want to give him a tribute. He says I’m sorry, but does he really mean it?

WITW:  Why did you sexualize the character of Amina in the film?

The perpetrator is an American straight guy who used a widespread fantasy about gay women. I didn’t hesitate to sexualize Amina in the film, because she was very sexualized right from the beginning. He was using this character not only to talk about Syria or to the media, but he had [used] this character for lesbian dating since 2006. So via Amina he had a lot of affairs with different women. Amina was sexy as well as being a rebel fighter of the revolution. The blog was a lot about her sexuality as a Muslim lesbian woman. She would even write lesbian poetry. So her sexuality was really a part of her success.

“The Amina Profile” is expected to be released theatrically in the United States by IFC films later this year.

Watch the trailer of The Amina Profile below:

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