Were I a documentarian, I’d be envying Andrew Jarecki right about now. With his HBO miniseries The Jinx, he got what every Vice-watcher and Thin Blue Line-worshipper would kill for—a hypnotic and fully cooperative subject, a riveting central mystery, and an on-camera twist that led, in the midst of the doc’s multi-week run, to a highly televised criminal arrest. The murderous Robert Durst may waste away in the slammer, but with The Jinx he pulled off a final pre-penitentiary coup: he made damn sure that any other docs hawking “the year’s biggest shocker!” would look slightly pathetic by comparison.
Sophie Deraspe’s A Gay Girl In Damascus: The Amina Profile does not surpass the Durstian standard. Whereas The Jinx stumbled onto a genuinely underinvestigated Big-Fish story, Gay Girl’s central hoax is old news to most people who’ve scrolled through CNN’s “World” section over the past half-decade. And while The Jinx’s twist exploded in real time, Gay Girl’s occurred four years before the doc’s limited release. But it turns out that this cautionary tale now has a morbidly condemnatory twist of its own: after four long years, this story’s warning about social media and global politics have become more relevant, not less. Despite a notably flawed approach, Deraspe turns that warning into something engrossing—and enraging.
The documentary’s apparent protagonist is Sandra, a French Canadian absorbed in a lesbian cyber-affair with a Syrian blogger-activist named Amina. In addition to the mutual stimulation wrought by continuous sexting, the relationship has its psychological benefits: Amina’s exotically dangerous work coaxes Sandra to open up about her arid emotional life, while Sandra’s unerring dedication reinforces Amina’s already armorial bravery. But as a few smart reporters find out, Amina’s actually clad not in armor, but in an online mask. In fact, her very existence is a social-media fiction created by an asocial loser in a Georgia suburb. In other words: Sandra’s been catfished.
And, as we find out, she’s not the only one. As the plot thickens, Deraspe sends Sandra to interview other people damaged by “Amina”’s fraudulence. These people may be organized into three groups. The first is comprised of the actual Syrian revolutionaries, who loved Amina’s blog and strove to protect her from government-sponsored violence. It seems outlandish that these battle-hardened rebels would fall so hard for someone they’d never actually met, but, as we see, their response was a rational one; after all, these anti-government activists do most of their work anonymously, with Photoshopped profile-pictures and carefully forged names. In a world where all the police need to kill you is your name and address, a false identity is the only true shield. And in 2011, many a Syrian activist was impressed by the strength of Amina’s shield—her combination of defiant boldness and canny subterfuge provided a model of activism that electrified and galvanized them. But in the end, they were duped by their own brilliant technological protocols, their ingeniously wrought absence making way for a deceitful presence.
At first, many of these revolutionaries were furious, but by the time they’re interviewed here, the anger has faded, replaced by a kind of cynicism. Four years into an uprising-turned-abbatoir, Amina’s lies are just another unremarkable addition to the towering pile of betrayals.
Not surprisingly, the scenes with the revolutionaries are among the most powerful in the film, and Derapse and her editors perceptively blend them with audio-visual collages that focus more on general feelings than specific incidents. The grainy and gap-filled footage of the Syrian uprising cannot provide an coherent account of one event, but it can convey some of the vice-grip terror that’s plagued a nation.
Far away from all of this strife is the second major group duped by “Amina”–the network of journalists who covered her and then uncovered her. These range from a seen-it-all crisis expert to an intellectually pugnacious “Geek Feminist” blogger. Together, these people pieced together “Amina”‘s real identity, and together they react with rage–even in their jaded careers, they’ve never seen something quite like this. They also kick themselves for under-scrutinizing their sources to speed-print an appealing story. Sitting at the intersection of sexual orientation and international activism, Amina’s cascade of lies were catnip for the progressive press. When an NPR reporter is asked to sum up the story’s appeal, he simply restates the title: “Gay. Girl. In. Damascus.” Hearing this, I was reminded of Richard Rorty’s chilling aphorism: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.”
But if these reporters sold out their journalistic obligations at first, they made up for it with a deep-cover investigation that blew the lid right off the fraud. With help from her co-editor Geoffrey Boulange, Delaspe does an impressive job of laying out this complex detective story in a way we can understand. As the journos trace the fraudster’s online footprint from a faked Facebook invite to a strange “Guardian” interview to the Picasa picture that finally gives the game away, Boulange and Delapse use well-chosen and well-paced screenshots to build clearly and carefully to the “Eureka” moment.
That moment brings us to the final person “Amina” lied to—her creator, a self-justifying and quietly egomaniacal cyber-geek named Tom MacMaster. As it turns out, the forty-something Georgian man has fooled himself into falling in love with his own creation, and has even convinced himself that he won’t be caught. He has also convinced himself, believe it or not, that he’s done a good deed. “While my narrative voice may have been fictional,” he vomits, it was “true to the situation on the ground.” What’s more, the journalists who unmasked him embody not ethical reporting, but “new forms of liberal Orientialism.”
What can one say about a guy like this? As it turns out, the documentary says little. Admittedly, the camera does spend a little too much time locked on his face, as if it’s looking for clues. But for the mostpart, the picture refuses to address the MacMasters freak-show any more than is absolutely necessary. This is both a smart move and an ethically correct one. In one of the film’s more unsettling moments, one of the Syrian rebels reveals that the “Amina” hoax didn’t even provide them with the soft consolation of some good press. Instead of focusing on the people who were wronged, the world media honed in, relentlessly and excitedly, on the wrong-doer. By shoving MacMaster off to the side, the film does a bit to rectify that error.
Yet Deraspe isn’t always so wise when managing her divergent plot points. As I’ve discussed above, most of the film’s narrative sections are well-dealt with. But Delapse makes the serious blunder of subordinating most of the other characters to Sandra’s, handing over main-character duties and a great deal of screen-time to “Amina”’s aforementioned online lover. At this point in my review, you can probably spot the problem: after hearing about all the other people impacted by Amina’s falsified existence, do you really think that the film needs her online chat-buddy as its clear-cut protagonist? I can only guess at why Deraspe made this decision. But I will say that Sandra’s centrality comes off as a decidedly unsubtle hedging of bets; on the off-chance that widespread fraud, headline politics, and cultural upheaval aren’t enough to reel us in, maybe a spicy lesbian love affair will do the trick. Sandra was a part of this story, and she certainly deserves to be included in the telling. But when the film spends too much time on her electronic arousals, it trivializes a tale of widespread betrayal. And when it fixates on her very real heartbreak, it ditches its sense of objectivity. With its meticulous footage-gathering and suggestive editing, A Gay Girl In Damascus cuts through many people’s troublesome delusions. But, for the reasons explained above, it never takes the knife to Sylvia’s.
Heroically assembled, lucidly organized and unevenly focused, A Gay Girl In Damascus is hard to grade. If I had to, I suppose I’d go with a B- or C+. But that doesn’t sum up my reaction to a film that, even with its structural difficulties, brings up so many important issues. As I watched the Syrian rebels bemoan their continued losses, I thought of how long that war has dragged on, and how utterly we’ve numbed ourselves to the fount of blood birthed by the Arab Spring. And when the journalists address the corrupting power of political correctness, it’s hard not to recall the Rolling Stone “Rape On Campus” scandal, which was also powered by well-meaning progressives high on confirmation bias—and by shocking abuses against the privilege of anonymity.
As art, A Gay Girl In Damascus falls some inches short of any ideal, Durstian or otherwise. But if it doesn’t belong in Film Studies classes, it certainly deserves a home in Communication departments, where students should discuss what to do about a world that’s so rapidly filling up with Aminas.
A Gay Girl in Damascus is available now through SundanceNow Doc Club.
Mason Walker is a kazoo-bearing Jew who writes at his blog So Beautiful or So What when he isn’t visiting Loser City.