Amina’s Profile: Living Through our Digital Identities

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Le Profil Amina/The Amina Profile is an interesting documentary by Quebec filmmaker Sophie Deraspe. The film starts with a chat session between two women, who meet online and have two continents between them. The usual digital love story begins that has them share love, laughter, family photos, photos of one another, as the sensual build-up of their online romance begins to take shape.

Amina lives in Syria, which is burning in the flames of a civil war in 2011. Gay rights are non-existent and for Amina, who just found a lover, supporter, an inspiration, coming out and making herself heard is what she can do with Sandra (her Canadian online girlfriend) supporting her.

From the first scene of the film, which has two silhouetted women undressing, the sensuality of the relationship is at the forefront of this documentary. It’s interesting that prima facie one thinks that this is going to be a coming out story of this woman who finds her nation’s identity an extension of hers. It’s like an early trick the filmmaker plays on the audience. I for one was drawn in by this modern day love story of two women finding each other, notwithstanding the distance, war, taboo attached to their sexual orientation.

After a run in with the cops, Amina starts her blog (A Gay Girl in Damascus), her point of view on being a lesbian in civil war-torn Syria. The blog gets picked up by the Guardian and this is all it needs to get global visibility, the legitimacy that it deserves, perhaps. Fast forward many months, the online relationship with Sandra continues in full force and the gay girl from Damascus is the voice of suppressed LGBTQ people across the Middle East. Everyone is talking about it; people are quoting it in discussions. Suddenly it’s more interesting to talk about the blog than the actual civil war.

The documentary surprises people who didn’t know what Amina’s story was about. While it got some media coverage when it blew up in 2011, for the most part no one knew what happened to the gay girl from Damascus.

(Spoiler Alert) Amina’s story was a made-up narrative, fake and created by a man by the name Thomas J. MacMaster. MacMaster stole another woman’s life and pictures and created Amina’s life, including the relationship with Sandra. In the beginning when asked by Sandra to get on Skype, Amina says that Skype doesn’t work in Syria. That perhaps should have been a giveaway, if rationality had any place in romance and infatuation. MacMaster’s defense was that he wanted to give voice to the issue of LGBTQ rights. Also, on a more personal level he confesses that after years of struggling as a writer, his blogs were getting read. His writing made him famous.

The film comments on the power of the digital world that creates ideas, identities, and people, without any need to verify or ask questions. A blog that we come across seems as authentic as a book we picked up at a local library. The author, their identity and their authority to give voice to the issue they champion is never in question. That’s what the digital world of the 21st century is about. It’s this made up universe of its own, breathing, thriving. The documentary tries to include a critique of the media and how it plays up stories that seem sensational. No one really spoke about the real war in Syria and latched on to this ‘activist’ looking story that the Guardian gave credence to,’ comments one of the interviewees.

The only failing of the film is the overindulgent nature of the Sandra–Amina narrative. While the emotional betrayal of Sandra is relevant to the story, somehow it tends to take center stage above all else. The filmmaker would have been more effective if the critique was directed at the power of the media, creation of false ‘digital identities’ and their impact on all of us. That is at the heart of the debate of something like Amina. There is so much at stake and yet the narrative is not able to fully take the culprits head on.

Sam Shalabi’s score and the Deraspe’s cinematography is top notch. The filmmaker does well to caution us attention hungry global citizens, who take to the digital world to find love, relationships, fulfillment and our extended identities.

The Amina Profile is playing now at Excentris and Cinema du Parc.