2015 Sundance Film Festival Filmmaker Profile: Sophie Deraspe (Director – ‘The Amina Profile’)

Amina Arraf, an attractive Syrian-American revolutionary, is having an online affair with Sandra Bagaria, a young, brilliant and well-informed Montreal professional. Amina then launches her provocatively named blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus. As the Syrian uprising gains momentum, the blog acquires a huge following. But it’s Amina’s subsequent abduction—carried out in broad daylight in downtown Damascus, allegedly by the Syrian secret police—that sparks an international movement to save her from torture, rape or even death.

Amina PosterPlaying out like a detective story, The Amina Profile involves American intelligence agencies, top-tier global media (The Guardian,The New York Times, the BBC, CNN) and a host of activists and sympathizers. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of a divided nation being drawn into civil war, this tale of virtual relationships in the era of online data takes on international dimensions. What starts as a love story becomes a story about an unprecedented media and sociological hoax, infotainment, deceit and betrayal.

Travelling from San Francisco to Istanbul, Washington, Tel Aviv and Beirut, director Sophie Deraspe chronicles Bagaria’s quest to track down the key players who will ultimately reveal the identity of her erstwhile lover. Deraspe’s stunning cinematography mixes feminine sensuality and revolutionary fervour, immersing viewers in the Middle East as they join her on the trail of an elusive quarry. Examining desire and the notion of true connection, The Amina Profile explores the gap between self and other, fantasy and authenticity.

Anticipating ‘The Amina Profile‘ International PREMIERE at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, we spoke with Sophie Deraspe extensively on the film’s origins, importance, and mission.  ‘The Amina Profile‘ screens on January 24-26 & 29-30 in Park City, Utah.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘The Amina ProfileHERE

What drew you to Amina Arraf, and how did you get Sandra Bagaria’s participation to let you document her side of the story?
I knew Sandra personally and was a witness to her affair with Amina right from the beginning—that is, from their first online encounter until the abduction of Amina and the subsequent investigation, which initially tried to uncover what had happened to her, then to figure out who she really was when questions about her identity started to emerge. Though I obscured my presence in the film, I was at gatherings with friends where we discussed, extrapolated, and tried to understand what was unfolding in front of us. It really felt like being in a film… but Sandra was so deeply betrayed and exposed by the media at that time that I couldn’t just ask her to let me film what she was experiencing. She was the one who came to me one evening, offering me this magnificent gift: a carte blanche to turn what she had been through into something creative. At that time I felt the story hadn’t completely unfolded, but I never expected it would go this far when we set out on a journey around the world to meet with the key players.

Amina 3The documentary is a combination of various genres — it’s a romance, mystery, worldwide event, and political thriller. How did you decide on which aspects you would focus primarily on, and how did you organize those elements?
This was actually my first concern. My access to the story was through Sandra herself, who was part of it all from the beginning, so it was logical to adopt her point of view. When she came to me, willing to have the story told within a broader context, she wasn’t asking to be part of it herself. It wasn’t even a question of whether or not to make a documentary at that time (as opposed to a fiction film, which is what I’d made previously). I think she entrusted me to go beyond the sensational story, to which her name will be attached for as long as the Internet exists.

The “success” of the Amina persona was the result of an amazing synchronicity of events, all of equal importance: a blog about being gay and liberal in a conservative country where a revolution is just beginning to simmer; the fact that journalists were not able to enter the country to cover what was happening, making Western media eager for a voice from the inside who could speak to a Western audience; activists who needed to get the word out; and the existence of a Canadian lover who could “vouch” for her. It’s as if everyone was involved in fabricating a persona without even being aware of it. And I figured that after letting the viewer dive into that shared modern orientalist fantasy, I could then reveal the brutal reality, step by step.

Although Amina’s blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus” became a sensation amidst the Syrian revolution, many in the general public may not be aware of this scandal. Did that work to your benefit in constructing a narrative that would play like a mystery for the viewer to watch unfold? In terms of storytelling, I felt I had to speak to both audiences, those who knew nothing about the gay girl in Damascus, and those who followed her in the media. I knew, in any case, that my angle on Sandra was unique and untold to this extent. And since I myself discovered so much by meeting with the key people involved and letting real encounters take place, I knew before the shoot ended that what people may already know about this story was only the tip of the iceberg. Even though specialized journalists or academics had already studied the case (which is quite an interesting aspect to examine as well), the story continued to unfold. For Sandra it offered a sense of closure. We could almost call it a therapeutic journey.

Amina 8Speaking of public awareness, the documentary brings up the Western mainstream media’s attraction to sensational stories, which can gain traction as quickly as they can lose it. Why do you think it has to take a story so shocking and bizarre for the media to put a spotlight on ongoing international conflicts? The media certainly bear a huge responsibility in this scam, but as I mentioned above, we too are part of how it all worked out. Why do we need this catchy blog title to follow a Syrian activist? Why do we click on the profile of the cutest, boldest, sexiest lesbian from a country where women are supposedly covered and submissive? The success of the Amina persona is like a mirror image of our own desires.

Did you face any difficulties in obtaining the trust of any key people and making them open up about their side of the story?
I have to admit that sometimes I felt pretty nervous before some of the meetings we had. In retrospect, I think I made the exact right decision to go alone with Sandra, doing the camera work and sound myself (I’ve worked as a director of photography on previous documentaries). We were very mobile, which is quite convenient when you want to travel the world. We had wonderful cooperation and we were not a threat to anybody.

Amina 4In the absence of “Amina,” an actress portrays this mysterious woman in brief scenes throughout. But to make up for that, this documentary shares excerpts of private online conversations between the two women. Was it a challenge to get the rights to publicly share those intimate moments?
Amina and Sandra’s love story is made up of thousands of e-mails and text messages, many hours a day spent online together, over a period of six months. I had to summarize and go for the essence of the relationship. I didn’t quote either of the two women, except when explicitly citing excerpts from Amina’s blog. I gave audiences a taste of what their relationship was like…

There’s a climactic scene near the end where Sandra finally confronts the key individual of the Amina story in person. Was that one-on-one meeting a direct result of the documentary, or was it an independently-made agreement between the two?
That is the pure magic of documentary—when one is willing to take risks, show up and trigger some events, but let reality unfold.

Did the structure and plot points remain as you originally outlined or did it constantly change along the way with every new discovery?
When I set out on the journey with Sandra to meet with journalists, activists, Syrians in exile around the world, I didn’t know what exactly would come of those encounters. Each time, we came back amazed by how bright, how committed and sincere these people were. I knew also that the film couldn’t just end with a “well, it was all a hoax, and now goodbye.” The film says a lot more than that, but that “a lot” was revealed in the process of researching and shooting. I couldn’t control every aspect and plot point, but I had to make sure to lay the proper groundwork for all the potential to be revealed.

This documentary makes the viewer think of various matters: Internet crimes, international laws, conflicts in the Middle East, and ethical issues. What do you hope viewers will take away from seeing this?
As I mentioned previously, the issues exposed in this film concern all of us—anyone searching for reliable information on the Web or interested in forging personal connections through social media. With all these new technological tools, all the media outlets, big and small, all the possibilities for intimacy, how do we keep our head above the lies, mistakes, negligence, idiotic farces and distorted desires circulating out there? Sandra showed a great deal of courage by traveling the globe to face the truth. She had the guts to question herself as well, and not just play the role of a victim.

Did any of your views regarding the Amina scandal change during the process of developing this documentary?
I would say yes. The true face of Amina was an endless subject of speculation before we actually provoked the encounter. Now it feels more simple. More like a tremendous need for love, for attention and connection with others. A need that is, paradoxically, extremely prevalent in our era of so-called communication.

– Interview compiled & edited by Alfonso Espina

Sophie Deraspe_Photo Credit  Nadine MaasAbout the Filmmaker
Sophie Deraspe fell into cinema through visual arts and literature. As both a director and a cinematographer, she has worked mostly in documentary before directing her realism-bending first feature length film Missing Victor Pellerin (2006). Followed by critical acclaim and projections throughout the world, Sophie’s realistic work has continued with her second feature film Vital Signs in 2009. Since it’s world premiere at the Montreal Nouveau Cinema Festival and its International Premiere in Rotterdam Vital Signs has won 15 prices in more then 30 festivals around the world before being sold to many territories. In Quebec it was nominated for best picture by the Jutra’s jury. Sophie Deraspe is currently finishing her third feature film The Wolves.

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