2 min

Unravelling the Amina profile

A remarkable documentary about false identity at the Vancouver International Film Festival

Credit: Daily Xtra

Sandra Bagaria was utterly infatuated. The women she’d recently met online seemed too good to be true: smart, sexy and politically active. Amina Arraf was struggling with life as an out lesbian in war-torn Syria, and Montrealer Sandra felt a connection with this woman that was deeply committed and intensely passionate. But the anonymity provided by online relations can hide a multitude of sins, as shown in Sophie Deraspe’s remarkable documentary, The Amina Profile.

Sandra and Amina’s web-based relationship grew very intimate. There were naughty pictures exchanged and plenty of sexy chat, but Sandra was becoming increasingly anxious for her lover’s safety. Amina had started a blog called A Gay Girl in Damascus, a first-hand account of life in a land hostile to her sexuality. The blog became quite popular among western activists, giving a sometimes harrowing account of the political upheaval in Syria.

When Amina’s cousin Raina posted an announcement that the activist had been kidnapped, Sandra’s world began to unravel. Suddenly Amina was worldwide news. The media coverage catapulted the Syrian crisis onto headlines, but scrutiny exercised by journalists like Andy Carvin of National Public Radio revealed that not only did Amina not exist, she was actually an online hoax perpetrated by an American scholar named Tom MacMaster.

“It was so big, and such a painful period,” Deraspe says. “Sandra was being called by media outlets from around the world, while dealing with the loss of what she thought was her girlfriend. She thought she was building something with someone, but it was all a lie.”

Deraspe witnessed the heartbreak the young woman went through, and shared the sense of hurt and betrayal that MacMaster’s hoax caused. She approached her friend about documenting the experience on film, hoping that the experience would give Bagaria an outlet for her pain and anger.

Bagaria acquiesced, giving the director carte-blanche in regards to her personal online files and conversations with “Amina.” They then traveled around the world to meet with those who had helped uncover the deception, as well as others impacted by MacMaster’s deception.

“At first I was wondering how I’m going to tell the story since it all happened online,” Deraspe says. “I thought it would have to be told by all the people who had an implication in it. I wanted to meet with them, and when I asked Sandra if she’d come with me she said yes immediately.”

The interviews with Carvin, blogger Liz Henry, Turkish journalist İrem Köker and Israeli activist Elizabeth Tsurkon are gripping stuff, as they detail MacMaster’s un-masking. But it’s Syrian activist Rami Nakhla who makes us realize how the fraudster’s actions seriously damaged the fight for freedom by exhausting the interest of notoriously fickle media.

“The media is not interested anymore,” Nakhla says in the film. “People are dying in the dark.”

The film’s climax sees Bagaria and Deraspe traveling to Istanbul, where MacMaster was due to present a speech at the university. Bagaria confronts him in a riveting scene that is immensely cathartic for both her and the audience. The strength of character this woman displays in calmly calling MacMaster to task is frankly humbling.

“It’s very courageous, going to meet with the perpetrator of something that was criminal for her,” Deraspe says. “It finally gave her closure.”