“A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile” or the story of two straight men pretending to be lesbians online

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When Sandra Bagaria, a young lesbian living in Montreal, met a Amina, another gay woman around her age, online, she thought it could be love. And it was, for a while. She and Amina, who lived in Syria, would exchange romantic emails, share sensual photos and say they loved one another. At the same time, Amina was building a following around her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, and detailing the daily goings-on she faced in a homophobic, war-torn country, some of which were shared on the site Lez Get Real. Through the internet, she was able to build connections with people, including other queer women, who supported her and were concerned for her safety with the transparency she provided of her name and photograph online.

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So when Amina’s cousin reported she was kidnapped, people were concerned. Sandra, of course, as well as friends and fans who contacted organizations that aim to help protect journalists and, eventually, the State Department. But it turned out that, first, the photographs of Amina were actually stolen from a British woman’s Facebook, and then, her IP addresses could be tracked not to Syria, but to Georgia and then Turkey. Photos of Syria she’d taken and sent to Sandra were showing up on an American man’s Facebook page; the same man who owned the house at the address in Georgia, who was now visiting Istanbul: Tom Macmaster.

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It was an elaborate catfishing that took place in 2011, and is now being told in The Amina Profile: A Gay Girl in Damascus. Sandra allowed friend and filmmaker Sophie Desraspe to tell her story, which she calls “humiliating,” but also ends up confronting Tom for the first time ever and on camera. Told through interviews with Sandra and others who had connections to “Amina” during the time Tom ran the blog (he eventually wrote a post detailing Amina was fictitious but his posts were based in real events), the documentary details how it was so easy for one person to fool even the most reputable of news publications that reported on Amina’s disappearance. Once Tom is found out, he’s interviewed by these same media outlets, seeming smug about his actions and praising himself for having highlighted the outrageous terrors befalling Syrians.

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But why a lesbian? And why a staged love affair with Sandra? Tom, whose wife was with him during most interviews, claimed it provided a larger challenge for him, and that having a girlfriend (Sandra) leant him credibility. It also helped that a lesbian site published his work. That lesbian site, however, was found to also be a case of smoke and mirrors: Editor “Paula Brooks” was really Bill Graber, a retired construction worker in Ohio.

The Amina Profile tells the stories of deceit carefully and without the hasty anger as viewers might expect, especially as the filmmaker is so close to the woman cut deepest by the charade. But even Sandra herself has a forgiving nature, hoping that by sharing her situation, she can come closer to closure with the embarrassment she faced and the sickness she felt after realizing the woman she’d been corresponding with had been a man, all this time. She seems to understand when Tom says he failed to sell his novels and was thrilled that the blog—his latest piece of work—took off like it had. Although it’s clear she has been shaken by the incident, Sandra stands victorious at the end, a woman of compassion and love next to a coward who never truly seems to feel apologetic for the agony he caused, and the days caring people spent searching for a woman they worried was being raped, tortured or killed because she dared write about her life for the world to read.

A Gay Girl in Damascus made its premiere at Sundance this past year and is now available on video on demand and in select theaters this weekend.