It seems every year brings one notable documentary that features a major “plot twist,” and A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile may be this year’s model. That makes it difficult to discuss all aspects of the film, since much of its thematic resonance stems from the nature of the twist. Of course, if the words “A Gay Girl in Damascus” mean anything to you, then you’ll know exactly where the plot is going. I did, so I was ahead of the characters in the film, but I can happily report that this doesn’t harm its effectiveness. Although it does mean that I can’t speak to how guessable the big twist is.
The “Gay Girl in Damascus” refers to the eponymous Amina Arraf, a Syrian blogger who gained worldwide popularity as she posted about the unrest in her country as the Arab Spring emerged. At the same time, she was in a long-distance relationship with a French-Canadian woman named Sandra, with whom she formed an intense emotional bond. And then it was reported that Amina had been abducted by Syrian police. And after that, well, there lies spoiler territory.
The key to A Gay Girl in Damascus’s success is that, despite its twist, it is not constructed wholly in service to that twist, the way that, say, Searching for Sugar Man is. Rather, the twist is the lynchpin of the movie’s exploration of how people project themselves over the Internet and how it can be a tool both for good and deceit.
The backdrop of the Arab Spring, which was enabled in large part by social media, is perfect for its story. Far from being either technopohobic or technophiliac, this doc acts as a resonant cautionary tale about the difficulties society is still experiencing in figuring out who and what to trust online. And it’s grounded in the deeply felt story of Sandra, who had her heart dragged through the ringer over her gay girl in Damascus.
A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile opens this friday in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, and it will be also be available to stream the same day at SundanceNow Doc Club.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2015.