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Behind Sundance Doc: "A Gay Girl in Damascus"

By Ellie Lightfoot

Sophie Deraspe’s recently released A Gay Girl In Damascus: The Amina Profile reconstructs the elaborate hoax of Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American who duped the international community into rallying behind the fictional Syrian blogger persona, Amina Abdallah Arraf. In creating Amina to reflect an attractive, half-American, openly gay writer, MacMaster soon attracted millions of online followers to his blog and became known as an “authentic” voice of the 2011 Syrian uprising.

Only after Arraf was purportedly arrested and her international rescue mission launched did the horrifying truth come to light. Told from the perspective of Sandra Bagaria, a French activist with whom Arraf carried on a long-distance romance, the documentary scours the globe in search of answers– questioning journalists, activists, and intelligence agencies in preparation for a final interview with MacMaster himself.

The world seemed to rally behind Arraf so quickly – and this despite proper verification. We turned a blind eye to hundreds of real Syrian journalists, most ordinary citizens, who died trying to document the uprising unfold around them. While Deraspe, indeed, raises urgent issues within the changing landscape of digital journalism, she fails to unpack them with the proper nuance or scope. We gain limited insight into the cultural drivers behind the West’s Arraf craze, or its impact in Syria.  

Yet what the film lacks in analytic vigor it certainly makes up for in emotional heft. We walk out generally outraged – at MacMaster for duping Bagaria and appropriating a struggle that wasn’t his, at Western news agencies for stealing attention and credibility from other Syrian journalists, and ultimately ourselves for prioritizing Arraf’s seductive, romantic narrative.

But our outrage is localized to MacMaster’s immediate victims—and therefore fleeting. Instead of taking time to delve into the larger cultural processes that enabled the hoax to take root, Deraspe spent the majority of the film reconstructing Sandra’s personal story of love, loss, and betrayal. Reenacted scenes from the virtual couple’s sexual life punctuate the already dramatized investigate documentary, which in turn reduces the import of the insightful commentary offered by active Syrian bloggers.

In reality, what facilitated the rise of A Gay Girl in Damascus and heightened the consequences of its fall cannot be boiled down to our age-old bias for compelling narrative or desire to “keep pace” with technological innovation, as Deraspe suggested during a conversation with the World Policy Journal. Neither can the local implications be reduced to “attention or credibility” stolen from Syrian bloggers, of which there was already quite little. The larger problem has to do with the fundamentally distorted way we conceptualize digital media content emanating from the post-revolutionary Arab world.

After the successful use of social media to mobilize the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings of 2011, international news agencies and NGOs celebrated all non-professional media production – blogs, amateur videos, etc. – as key to catalyzing civic engagement, laying the foundations for democracy, and liberalizing a typically hierarchical industry. At the same time, a distinct phenomenology begin to crop up around the notion of “citizen journalism” – namely one in which the “individualized, anti-establishment” blogger, hunched over their laptop, documents and disseminates their “urgent, precious and potentially subversive” information straight to the public.

Academics have begun to take issue with the catchall citizen journalism frame, claiming it helps to conceal the immense diversity of digital media content and processes of dissemination emerging from Syria’s journalism sector, especially after the prohibition of foreign press in 2011. Some, like communication professor Omar Al-Ghazzi, have gone further; arguing the celebratory discourse surrounding new media often belies a legacy of exploitation and appropriation of local freelancers by large corporate news agencies.             

Arraf provided the Western media with an easy narrative to mold into our archetypal citizen journalist. After publishing the dramatic “My Father, My Hero,” story, The Guardian’s Katherine Marsh, for example, painted Arraf as an “unlikely hero” of the revolt, “capturing the imagination of the Syrian opposition” with her “brutally honest” blog that “poked at subjects long taboo in Arab culture.”   

Like much of the content gleaned from freelancers and embedded within major news outlets, Marsh’s portrayal of Arraf’s local repute had more to do with conjuring up a persona, than matching the reality on the ground.   

A Gay Girl in Damascus never struck Danny Ramadan, prominent LGBTQ activist and among the Syrian journalists featured in the film, as real or indicative of citizen journalism. Ramadan was sitting in the office of a small Damascene newspaper, when his friend, a fellow gay writer, first introduced him to it. “At the time, we both reached to the agreement that Amina is making stuff up,” Danny told the WPJ. The blog constituted nothing other than “unconnected stories and poems of love and desire, followed by tons of fictional stories about a glorified sense of self.”   

But Danny decided exposing her wasn’t worth it. Unlike Arraf, he wasn’t half American or authenticated by major news organizations, he actually had a lot to loose by exposing the truth. “Being the only voice of reason, while not supported by the mainstream agreement was something we didn't want to tangle.”

Only after the story broke did he understand the extent of damage that MacMaster had brought upon the Syrian LGBTQ community, who became a target increasingly by both the Syrian regime and public, along with citizen journalists who had “lost the trust that was the only thing that kept news outlets coming back to them.”

This is only one of the ways citizen journalism and its solicitation can cut against the democratizing narrative we attach to it. At the time of Arraf’s writing, for example, as well as today, Ramadan describes how major Western media outlets have compensated for the prohibition of foreign journalists in 2011 by pushing local freelancers into dangerous territories “without any insurance or follow-up support,” while “sending their own journalists to neighboring countries to report from the cafes of Beirut.”

The film doesn’t really dive into this analytic discussion about the structural causes and broader implications of the hoax, and on some levels it’s easy to understand why.  The collage of random non-professional protest footage, erotic reenactments, and repeated scenes following an Arraf look-a-like strutting through a non-descript alley are all intended to recreate the mental process by which Western audiences were lured into MacMaster’s fantasy. “I used the tools we had – from Sandra’s archives to things we could grab from YouTube, things that were anonymously there – as if it was fiction, because in many ways it as fiction,” Deraspe explained.

But to the average viewer, Deraspe’s subtle cultural commentary is lost. In fact, the titillating imagery and love story focus works to reinforce the very bias that she claims undergirds the hoax, namely the preference for a more seductive narrative. 

*****

*****

Ellie Lightfoot is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Image courtesy of Sophie Deraspe]

The film is now available to stream instantly via SundanceNow Doc Club.

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