A cautionary tale about the Internet that is itself massively susceptible to Internet spoilers, Canadian director Sophie Deraspe’s engrossing documentary “The Amina Profile” will be a very different movie for those who followed media reports of its subject than for those who go in cold. It concerns a blog known as “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” ostensibly the musings of a lesbian living amid Syrian unrest. What begins as an account of an online affair gradually morphs into a commentary on identity in the Information Age. With its slippery, deftly woven narrative, Deraspe’s doc could find an audience with the same viewers fascinated by “The Imposter” and “Catfish.” Its breakout potential isn’t on the same scale, though, given that the movie’s big reveal is no longer a secret.
The film begins by re-creating an online chat, spelled out onscreen, between Sandra Bagaria, a Frenchwoman living in Montreal, and Amina Arraf, who says she grew up in Syria and in the United States. (She is played by the film’s lone credited actress, Nilay Olcay, frequently photographed in the altogether or in silhouette.) Their emails and chats quickly turned steamy, and as their courtship progressed, Amina’s blog gathered an international following; Bagaria, the movie’s emcee, interviews several devoted readers in cities across the globe. Then Bagaria heard that Amina had been taken in by some sort of security force, her fate prompting concern across continents.
It was then — and here viewers concerned about preserving the movie’s secrets may want to step away — that her existence came into question. Had anyone actually met her? Various journalists, including NPR’s Andy Carvin and the Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, examine the finer points of Amina’s online footprint. The Guardian comes under scrutiny for reporting on the blog without answering the fundamental question of whether its proprietor existed. Adding to the irony: It emerged that the true author, a man named Thomas J. MacMaster, had exchanged explicit messages with another noted lesbian blogger … who turned out to be man.
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“The Amina Profile” thus turns on a dime from being a movie about the Syrian uprising to being a movie about the power of online influence. The blog may have caused genuine harm, as the movie suggests that media attention devoted to Amina’s posts took up journalistic real estate that might otherwise have gone to real reporting on Syria. MacMaster may have hurt the credibility of real Syrian activists. And we may all have become too trusting of what we see online. The insights the movie has aren’t exceptional; this stranger-than-fiction series of events is enough.
Toward the end, Sandra confronts MacMaster about the emotional damage he caused. (Deraspe, by delving so deeply into the intimate details of the couple’s relationship, makes that damage palpable.) Even with zero credibility, MacMaster comes across as oddly sincere. It’s a tense, unpredictable confrontation in a movie committed to telling its story in the present tense whenever possible.
The film moves fluidly between surreal enactments and the more standard talking-head footage, while composer Sam Shalabi’s Middle Eastern-flavored reverb injects a steady dose of anxiety.