Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sundance ’15: The Amina Profile

Razan Ghazzawi is one of the few Syrian dissident bloggers who posts under her real name. A critic of censorship and an advocate of women’s rights and tolerance for gays and lesbians, Ghazzawi has been arrested twice by the Assad regime and still faces potential prosecution and constant interrogations. This film should have been about her, but it is not. Instead, it chronicles the short but provocative history of Amina Arraf, who was very much like Ghazzawi, except she was a hoax. It is a strange and ultimately unhelpful story told in Sophie Deraspe’s The Amina Profile, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

What started as an online flirtation for French Canadian Sandra Bagaria soon turned very real, except it wasn’t. Perhaps she should have been more suspicious in the age of catfishing, but the ostensive Arraf always had good justifications for her elusiveness, such as the fact Skype is blocked in Syria. With Bagaria’s encouragement, the Arraf persona launched the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, which soon became a retweetable phenomenon. To their credit, the person behind the phony identity had a decent handle on the Syrian situation, but said individual (easily findable online) misjudged badly when they decided to have Arraf kidnapped.

Having been widely cited in credible media outlets, as well as The Guardian, news of Arraf’s abduction ignited an online firestorm of protest. However, as real deal Syrian dissident Rami Nakhla explains, it diverted attention from legitimate known prisoners of conscience, such as Ghazzawi. It also gave an opportunity for the pathologically anti-Israeli Electronic Intifada to do the Assad regime a favor by following the i.p. trail of the person behind the Gay Girl in Damascus.

Ironically, Profile does exactly what it decries, by concentrating almost entirely on the Arraf story, at the near total expense of Ghazzawi and other imprisoned Syrian activists. It would have made much more sense to divide the narrative between the very real perils facing Ghazzawi and the bizarre Arraf narrative unraveling concurrently. However, we have to deal with the film as it is, rather than how it might have been.

To an extent, Deraspe justifies Profile’s editorial strategy by following Bagaria’s long-term efforts to process the revelation. It is good to know that she was able to reach some measure of closure, but without the wider Syrian implications, her experience would not be so very different from that of Manti Te’o.

Anyone intrigued by Profile should definitely try to catch it while it makes the festival rounds, because it is hard to see it playing on PBS, given some of its early erotic imagery. Of course, HBO might be a possibility. It is never dull, thanks to Deraspe’s solid sense of pacing and the hot button issues it addresses, but one cannot help wishing she had widened her focus. For those who are fascinated by media hoaxes and feeding frenzies, The Amina Profile screens today (1/25) in Salt Lake and tomorrow (1/26), Thursday (1/29), and Friday (1/30) in Park City, during this year’s Sundance.