Like The Imposter and Catfish – documentaries that unearthed the real identities of subjects who conned others into thinking they were someone else – The Amina Profile concerns itself with an elaborately constructed online ruse. In this case, director Sophie Deraspe looks at the real identity behind Amina Arraf, a lesbian Syrian blogger who reported on the front lines of the Arab Spring via her website, A Gay Girl in Damascus.
Unlike Catfish and The Imposter, though, there’s no spoiler alert necessary with The Amina Profile,as the story was well documented in the media. Activists, journalists and even an online girlfriend were all duped when Amina was discovered to be a white, married American dude living in Edinburgh named Tom MacMaster. He seems to have literally taken the well-known New Yorker cartoon caption “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” as his own personal mantra, though perhaps the word “sociopath” is a better fit than “dog.”
At the height of the Arab Spring in 2011, A Gay Girl Blog in Damascus had became a sort of metonym for the online activism efforts of Syrian protesters. The aftermath was explosive, even embarrassing, for publications such as The Guardian, which had given the blog high praise. Amina’s real identity was first revealed by the online publication The Electronic Intifada, whose members are interviewed in Deraspe’s film. She treats them like first-class sleuths for tracking down MacMaster’s location through his IP address, but the film’s incredulous, over-detailed explanation of their discovery doesn’t make sense in 2015, given that most people understand how the Internet works.
Although the first act in The Amina Profile tries to carry on the pretense that Amina is a real person, it becomes obvious quickly that something is amiss. This is most noticeable in the language used by interview subjects when they talk about Amina, as it carries the cynical tinge of hindsight. Even before Deraspe’s reveal, Amina goes from a brave queer activist who deserves all the sympathy in the world to a shady, mysterious stranger who complicates an already complicated and sensitive situation.
The film tries too hard to sensationalize a real-life story that has already been sensationalized enough – the kind that’s too strange for fiction – but in doing so undermines the narrative’s own weirdness. The visual focus on Amina as a sensual, exotic lover is a major distraction, for instance. The film continuously reimagines Amina as a beautiful, Middle Eastern woman exploring her sexuality in a repressed, patriarchal state, yet we never see her face, only unsubtle close-ups of body parts. The repetition of these re-enactment shots is contrived and uninspired, as if Deraspe didn’t have enough footage.
MacMaster’s unhealthy compulsion is given little screen time, other than a few brief screen grabs from Skype conversations and a final climax in which the girlfriend of “Amina” confronts him. The ending is interesting less for the awkward, tense conversation that ensues, and more because the film finally shows us MacMaster, and we can’t help but be transfixed, even moved, by his genuine-sounding apology. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to have, given his abhorrent manipulation.
In trying to recreate the mystery of A Girl from Damascus, Deraspe inadvertently and unfortunately creates a new mystery in MacMaster, who remains a fascinating, unknowable subject.