Review: ‘The Amina Profile’ finds intrigue in a mystery of online identity

The events in “The Amina Profile,” playing in Sundance's World Documentary Competition, are not being revealed for the first time in Sophie Deraspe's film.

If you Google Amina Arraf and her A Gay Girl in Damascus blog, the arc of the story plays out on the first search page.

It was a widely reported story, but not universally reported, which makes for a complication in discussing “The Amina Profile.” Do I discuss what the actual movie is, even if it means stripping aside some secrecy? Or do I play coy, pretend this documentary is like “The Sixth Sense” and I'd be violating its integrity by revealing too much while, thus, give it only half the intellectual consideration it probably deserves?

I'm going with the former approach, because while obfuscation is cute and fun, “The Amina Profile” is an interesting movie that probably will have a better chance at exposure if I say what it is than if I deny two-thirds of the movie and treat it as something it isn't.

In short, I don't think I'm “spoiling” “The Amina Profile” in this review, but I am going to discuss what the movie is, which I think is more respectful than pretending otherwise. But your results may vary.

The basic set-up for “The Amina Profile”: It's 2011 and, in the midst of the Syrian uprising, Amina Arraf and her blog A Gay Girl in Damascus begin to make a bit of a splash. Middle Eastern upheaval is big media news and Affaf's combination of location, politics, sexuality and a very attractive profile picture make her easy to latch onto.

While Arraf was gaining online notoriety, she was also beginning a hot-and-heavy relationship with Sandra Bagaria, a beautiful Canadian woman. Amina and Sandra never met, never spoke, never Skyped, but they exchanged hundreds of emails and spent countless hours IMing, many of the conversations tending toward the sensual. Soon, however, problems began to arise as Amina's postings were making her a threat, culminating in the news that the blogger had been kidnapped by the Syrian military.

A terrified Sandra begins to explore what she can do to rescue the woman she thinks of as a girlfriend and…

Things begin to unravel. Rapidly. 

The aftermath of the unraveling is what “The Amina Profile” is really about.

Two of the most lucrative Sundance documentary subgenres over the past five years have been First-Person Drama in the Middle East and Revealing The Internet's Scary Underbelly. 

“The Amina Profile” should be able to find an audience because it is, to be plain, an Arab Spring “Catfish” with the sultry hook of lesbian erotica.

See? You're enticed.

You may also be selling “Amina Profile” short.

Secrecy simultaneously made and minimized “Catfish” when it premiered at Sundance in 2010. Reducing the documentary to its twist allowed easily duped critics to talk about it as a thriller and to even throw around absurd puffery like “Hitchcockian,” which helped “Catfish” earn a healthy theatrical release and then a wildly lucrative afterlife as an MTV hit series. But it also reduced “Catfish” to a documentary about a shocking reveal, rather than an unfolding narrative about the flexibility of identity in the digital age, what the cyber-masks we wear or believe in say about ourselves and the illusion of digital connectedness. Ancillary success has made “Catfish” into a lesser movie than the sum of its cinematic parts.

Bits and pieces of the Amina Arraf story came back to me as I was watching “The Amina Profile,” but in the haze of my memory, I was finding many of Sophie Deraspe's stylistic choices to be distracting in the first 20 or 30 minutes.

The writer, director, cinematographer and co-editor, Deraspe uses some of the story's initial nebulousness as an aesthetic choice. I was able to retroactively reconcile myself to many of those choices as the story crystalized. 

We begin with an erotic online conversation loosely represented with gauzy, “Red Shoe Diaries”-esque imagery of a disrobing woman. The scene plays out less as a documentary portrayal of female sexuality than as a distanced, soft-core abstraction. Parts of the story's perspective is through a partially seen woman navigating the unidentified streets of an unidentified Middle Eastern city. Archival footage of civic clashes related to the Arab Spring aren't contextualized in terms of location or date. It's a composite of a woman in a composite of the Middle East with a composite of lesbian naughtiness as a backdrop. 

I choose to believe that Deraspe knows the artifice of her construction and is using it to mirror the artifice of the construction of Amina Arraf, though I have to admit that I was a little irked while watching the first half of the film, wondering what exactly the filmmaker was trying to represent. There's an exoticism at work here, an exoticism of Amina, of her homeland and of her relationship with Sandra, but I think that plays into the making and exoticism of Amina within the media. 

I'm less sure that Deraspe knows how neutral and unengaging a centerpiece Sandra Bagaria is for the storytelling. Sandra was an active participant in the film, but apparently enough time has passed since the Amina incident that Sandra's passions have cooled a little bit. Thanks to the “Catfish” TV series, we have a template for how one might react to the circumstances at play here and Sandra's response is about as disengaged as one could imagine. Many viewers are going to want to see Sandra's outrage, her bitterness, her sadness, but that's not really what she's going through and she's either not especially introspective or Deraspe isn't willing to push her. In fact, the movie builds to a potentially intense confrontation, tip-toes up to that confrontation and then gives the strong impression that whatever transpires was actually anti-climactic, or else too personal for one party or the other to approve of showing. Either way, it's not there.

The advantage of Sandra's semi-placid approach is that even though she's somewhat our guide through the story, Deraspe is forced to seek out other sources, who expand “The Amina Profile” beyond the “Catfish” duped/duper binary. 

Traveling the world, from Istanbul to Tel Aviv and more, “The Amina Profile” becomes more complicated when Deraspe is able to talk to people whose frustration with Amina goes well beyond emotional/romantic discord. There are online activists and LGBT activists who ponder why the media was so eager to embrace Amina and the harm that Amina's hoax did in marginalizing and even jeopardizing the lives and freedom of Syria's real dissident and gay communities. In “Catfish,” the central hoax confused and hurt Nev and raised only somewhat explored questions about its perpetrator, but here there are actual stakes and true questions about media complacency and a willingness to accept a too-good-to-be-true story without due diligence. Of course a person trafficking in a fictional story would be more enticing to the mainstream media. That person isn't constrained by actual reality and they can check every box a lazy reporter would want checked for a source. And in a region in which even legitimate reporters have to sometimes use pseudonyms to protect their identities from hostile regimes, what can the thousands or millions of people reading those journalists expect when it comes to truth?

“The media is not interested anymore,” laments an actual Syrian blogger, who points out that just because Amina wasn't facing the military knocking on her door and didn't get kidnapped doesn't mean that there aren't people in Syria facing those exact conditions, people whose voices can't be heard because of the perception that somebody cried wolf.

At the end of “The Amina Profile,” I was interested in gay Syrian blogger Daniel Nassar, in Ali Abunimah of The Electronic Intifada, in Israeli activist Elizabeth Tsurkov. It's a movie about a subterfuge, about a ruse, but like an Amazon “People who bought… Also bought…” recommendation, “The Amina Profile” goes beyond demonizing Amina and honors the people whose stories have were inconveniently less sexy by virtue of being real. 

So I encourage the people behind “The Amina Profile” to use my “Arab Spring 'Catfish'” as a way to somewhat catfish a distribution platform. This totally seems like either HBO or Showtime's jam. But even though “The Amina Profile” works as a cyber-thriller of sorts, I think it's much more wide-reaching than that, a story about online identity, but also about the danger of media-constructed narratives, one that manages to salute both citizen journalists, but also establishment outlets like NPR.

Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“The Hunting Ground”
“The End of the Tour”
“A Walk in the Woods”
“Finders Keepers”
“How To Change The World”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”