Interview: Sophie Deraspe and Sandra Bagaria talks The Amina Profile

Sophie Deraspe and Sandra Bagaria

It is no secret that everyone uses social networks. Some take advantage of advance technologies to stay connected with family members, some with friends…. But someone used it for absolutely different reason, such as meeting new people or to find love in their life. What happens with Sandra Bagaria is something that should have been told in the movie filled with suspense and nail-biting plot, unpredictable ending with roller-coaster emotions…  But everything that I just described happened in a real life and can be seen in one of the best documentary film this year, The Amina Profile, directed by Sophie Deraspe.

During Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto in May, I had, I must say the sincere pleasure of having a joint interview with two absolutely incredible women, Sophie Deraspe and Sandra Bagaria, who tried to be as precise as possible to tell us more about Amina, who creates an online blog called A GAY GIRL IN DAMASCUS during one of the most dangerous times in Syria.

Movie Moves Me: I am sure the entire situation with Amina is quite hard for you to cope. Who did she become for you when you first met her online?

Sandra Bagaria: Well, she became, at the beginning of the relationship, someone that I could be confident with and to support her fight against the regime and be that person who could listen, as well as support the cause; challenge her on what she was doing as well as support for the creation of the blog.  When we started chatting online, the blog was not up and running.  It came a few days after and I really thought it was very important for Amina to start the blog and start sharing the situation in Syria, Damascus, especially. The fact that she was protesting was meant to be heard and I think it was a very good objective of hers to just spread the word out of Syria.

MovieMovesMe: But she also was trying to find excuses not to use video chat with a person I saw in the film, and she always said that there was no Skype. Honestly, I would like to know what you really felt. I’m sure that this made you wonder what was going on.

Sandra Bagaria: Yes, of course. And you know what, it happened a couple of times.  I did my own research, meaning I was looking on google to see if Skype was blocked in Syria and it happened that Skype was actually blocked in certain areas in Syria and there was also trouble with the internet.  So, when Skype was not a part of communication between Amina and us, I was like, okay, so we will have to rely on Gmail.  I had doubts, but the doubts disappeared when the guard conducted that interview with Amina in Damascus.  I thought then, well someone actually met her in Damascus, so my doubts of her existing, because Skype was blocked, just disappeared. It was, for me, a stamp of approval of her existence. That kept me going, and supporting her through the whole revolution.

Sophie Deraspe: Can I add something? I read the archives of their online relationship which was a written relationship, and I know you haven’t read it back, and never went through it, having actually lived it, and uh, first, she started the blog a few weeks after you first met, even two months after you first met, and also, whenever, you asked her many times, if we cannot Skype, let me phone you.  I want to hear your voice.  So you weren’t doubting her, but you wanted to have a real connection through her voice or you would ask her “Send me just a little piece of video”, and at first she said, “I cannot, my phone is tapped”, and then you insisted.  But not right away.  You insisted the week, two weeks after, saying, we can talk about the weather, we don’t have to talk about politics or whatever. And at one point, I think Amina felt that if she didn’t want to lose you, she would have to give you her number and it’s then that she gave you that number that you called and talked to a man that would only speak Arabic and you only English, or French, and you couldn’t understand each other.  At that point Sandra, you wrote to Amina, “There was this man, that couldn’t speak English”, and Amina was wondering, “Why didn’t my father answer, maybe something happened. I’ll rush to my house.”  And you received news from her later- the police came to my place and we have to move from Damascus and then this phone number wasn’t good anymore, because they had to move.  So there was always something new happening- a dramatic situation. And then when someone is going through something so dramatic, you don’t question, it becomes like you are not there saying, “I want to know the truth, I want to know if you exist.” Because, you believe that the person is going through something very dangerous, but at the same time, she’s very courageous.  So, you’re not asking her….. …. Sandra… Prove to me that you’re right, otherwise I won’t write to you anymore.

Sandra Bagaria: Exactly, but it was quite the way he would make his way through questions was clever, but at the same time, he would play a lot with the feelings that you could have empathy, and just like you said, once the guardian has conducted an interview with her, she is who she pretends to be.

MovieMovesMe: So we know that in Syria, especially with the revolution and stuff, when someone comes out and says they’re gay and start a blog, what did you feel at that time when she actually said that?

Sandra Bagaria: Well, I thought it was very courageous. And I’m a very kind and nice person so I was supporting Amina through that moment because I think she is doing what she believes in. I’m a big believer also in following up with your beliefs and standing up for them so for me it made super sense, even if it was risky. But at some point I think it’s part of the activism challenge also in those countries, whether you fight for it and you kinda understand the consequences that can happen to you and you just don’t do it, then hide or shut up, and just keep being in a submissive life. So it made sense.

Sophie Deraspe: And we have to say that Amina was Syrian-American, so having this American citizenship allowed her to be more open having and having the support of her family, and ..

Sandra Bagaria:  and it protected her more (continued)

Sophie Deraspe: Because for many people it wasn’t believable as a Syrian to be so outspoken about her sexuality. But being half American, it was okay, then it’s possible.

MovieMovesMe: When I was watching the film, and I’m not the one who made it, it’s you, but when I was reading all the text messages, I was like, “My goodness!” Because I didn’t know the reason I was feeling that way was because that person I didn’t even know was fake.  I had a hard time with this.  This is why I watched it five times, because I honestly felt bad, I felt incredibly bad. What did you feel when you started going through the program, the archives and files.  What did you feel when you started reading all of this in order to get ready for the film?

Sophie Deraspe: At first when Sandra gave me her archives, I felt it was a huge gift of trust. And, so only that just between us, it felt, wow, it’s great that you trust me with intimacy.  And then, also I told her, “Okay, if I am to make a film, I need total freedom.  I think all the subjects are important.  The way you entered into that relationship, the fact that it was an erotic relationship as well as intellectual, and politics and all that was involved.”  And she said, “Yes, you have total freedom.” Even at one point you told me, “Don’t be shy, because you talked about it.”  She knew it would be a stronger film if we addressed the issues.

MovieMovesMe: As the way it was?

Sandra Bagaria: Yeah, well I don’t think how can you be confident enough by just giving half of it? Like, it needs to be full, or you don’t do it. Well, she’s a director and she knows what she does and the other thing I told Sophia if you have to go graphic, go for it.  If you need to go graphic and you feel that the form and that then you can use it.  And I think it works perfectly this way.

Sophie Deraspe: And I’ve done previous films, I’ve done films before where I’ve addressed sexuality, I addressed, I worked with actors and their bodies. Even young people, old people and it’s something that I like in film, that I’m comfortable with and Sandra knew about it because I produced one of my films with a very good friend of hers.

Sandra Bagaria: So it made sense.

MovieMovesMe: I’m sure you were emotionally devastated, heartbroken, disappointed, you probably hated yourself.  I mean what did you feel when you realized that she never existed?

Sandra Bagaria:  Well, that didn’t last that long. But still, I was in shock. Well, I think it came in two ways.  The first way was seeing the face of Amina as someone else’s, it was a Croatian woman living in London. I fantasized over someone’s face for six months, and pictures, and I barely know the woman, and she doesn’t know me at all, so I need to surpass, and I need to move forward because you still have the idea of being in contact with someone and writing for six months. So there’s still someone being hurt, someone being tortured or detained, someone you have to free.  So that first disappointment happened and I’m like, “well keep on focusing on what needs to be done which is finding Amina and just making sure she’s okay.”  Of course when we understood it was not Amina behind Amina, it was someone else, it was Tom, I was angry, I was angry, disappointed, really frustrated. Angry because I put myself under the spotlight which I never expected to be that big also to try to free someone for the pleasure of one guy enjoying himself and just writing about it and for his own personal objectives.  So that’s what was very upsetting, but me being upset is one thing about my personal emotions, but what was even more upsetting is that he never understood how that story impacted and was hurting Syrian and activists’ credibility in the field.  That’s what was very important for me not to forget because you know I have the structure, I have the friends, I have the support to go through my personal breakup with Amina, but Syrian people didn’t ask for anything, were put in that situation trying to free Amina, putting their life at risk for someone’s own pleasure and that the biggest thing that upset me, that was just awful.

MovieMovesMe: Especially when you highlighted in the documentary film that the New York times, CNN, The Guardian, everyone was talking about a person who never existed. She was tortured, raped, but they were only talking about someone who never existed. I honestly don’t even want to talk about this person, I’m not even going to mention the name. Because during the relationship talking with Amina, you have shared some of your personal feelings, you gave a part of yourself.  How could he explain that? How could he allow it to go that far?

Sandra Bagaria: Well, You know the only explanation I would give is that he fell in love with me and so on his own, he hid behind Amina, but was still very attached and bounded with me, and I thought I was bounded with someone else.  So, I’m guessing he just went for it, and you have to understand also that he created Amina since 2006, so he created a persona out of Amina and I was probably a very good challenge of creation for him. And, also surprisingly for him he never expected to fall in love with me. He was probably starting to play, for pleasure and got trapped in his own creation by getting attached and just like moving forward and not knowing how to escape from it.

MovieMovesMe: So do you think he actually created Amina in that scale just to impress you?

Sandra Bagaria:  Amina was already there.  Amina was already online, she already had a life online.  I think he, Amina became who she was through me, and maybe she would never have gotten so much attention if I didn’t exist, meaning the relationship never existed because you have, you are pushing someone to love a person, a real person, because you are actually having a real communication with someone. So, I think the challenge was very exciting for him and this is why he took so much time to build Amina through the uprising, because I was probably challenging him also in the way of sharing emotions, sharing some feelings, sharing some moments, some life, and she and he had to actually step up a little and be at a certain level of complicity as well.

MovieMovesMe: Syria, someone who is gay there.  Did you think that this person that created this woman expected to make something big out of it? In terms there was a protest and so many people were dying there and someone who is coming out as a gay, don’t you feel that he maybe had two sides, he had two faces? And you don’t know which to trust, maybe he expected to get something out of it?

Sandra Bagaria to Sophie: Maybe, I don’t know, what do you think?

Sophie Deraspe: Well, he started the blog before the first uprisings in Syria.  But we know he had been constructing the persona for many, many years.  He had written the story, the story of her family and he had tried to have it published before and but it didn’t interest anybody, any publisher and but the fact that he used social media and used a blog and the fact that the timing was so great with the first uprisings in Syria gave him a lot of exposure, but credibility as well, because many people could trace Amina back for, like she had online footprints for many years before.  So, it wasn’t like this new character that pops up and is saying I’m gay, I’m part of the revolution.  Just like the reich at the time of the revolution, she was there before.  She had online relationships with other people, she was exposing her thoughts on politics and whatever, and so, yes he was.  I think I mean it was a character for him that allowed him to have some encounters online with lesbians so it would fulfil some of his fantasies, sexual fantasies and at the same time allowed him to speak about the Middle East, which he is obviously interested in and he knows things.  But as an American guy, no one would give him a voice.  But as this Amina, gay girl in Damascus, he had the right to speak about what was happening in Syria, and in the Middle East in general. So I think he is this type of guy who wanted some attention, who wanted his beliefs to be listened to, and it was a matter, of just like Sandra said, he had the support of Sandra, he had the support of a new community also.  And the country was on the frontline, the front pages of media, the journalists weren’t allowed in the country, so they had to rely on people that were inside.  But the journalists inside weren’t allowed to speak about what was happening and so it came from social media just like it happened the months before with Egypt, and Tunisia. So, it’s a matter of great, great, great timing, Sandra in his life and her life, and him wanting the attention and finally getting it at a level unexpected, I believe.

MovieMovesMe: How did you manage to make through this story without losing your sanity?

Sandra Bagaria: I think actually the story gave me sanity (laughs). You know I was, it’s also probably thanking my parents and the education I got. I was talking to a friend yesterday and I was saying that in a way, unfortunately went nuts, and I had to share with Sophia, but sometimes when you’re facing pain, when you’re facing doubts, you have to acknowledge them, and you have to grow from them. And I think that in a way, and this is me speaking, Sandra, I’m not talking about the Syrian people who never asked for anything. I think it was probably meant to happen in a way because I understood better who I was but I also had to ask myself the right questions to move forward.  What was very interesting in our collaboration with Sophia was that I was giving away archives for me to feel better about it, to have someone I could talk in case I had to talk about it.  Having an exchange.  Also, because I thought it was a very important story to tell. So she had that, and she could take it from there and pursue her own artistic process while I was pursuing my own personal process, but in a way making sure both of us were working together and syncing at some point.  And you know, I think this is why we’re here, this is why we like sharing it together.  It’s because we reached, I reached a closure on that project, through the project, through the talks, through the travels, through meeting all these people, through understanding why I fell for Amina as well. And, in a way, supporting it, and talking about it with people, and getting their feedback, listening to their stories, feels good, but feels even more satisfying because I understood why it happened to me and I understand why it was necessary for me to share it with Sophia and to make a great documentary out of it. So, it feels very satisfying to just be honest from the beginning until the end. So, I think I’m a better person because of everything that happened. And I think there’s two ways to go about it.  There’s the first way of hiding and crying and self-pity, and there’s a second way, of this was very hurtful, very painful, I did cry, I did lose it for a couple of days.  But, okay I need to stand up and I need to understand why it happened and how to turn it on a positive aspect.  Because this is who I am. These are the values that my parents gave me in a way, and I think it’s very important.

MovieMovesMe to Sophie: You heard about the story. As a filmmaker, you always try to make sure that the viewer will get into the story you tell and also get something from it. What do you feel as a viewer I can learn from it?

Sophie Deraspe: Different things. I don’t want to talk about the dangers of social media.  But the fact that it goes so fast in our world.  People don’t want to stay single too long, they want to meet online which is a new way of meeting and it’s great for many people, for gay people actually.  Sometimes it’s easier to meet, than to get dressed up, and go into bars, or if you’re not quite sure of the reaction of the person you might be interested in, whatever.  So it’s good.  But at the same time people do want to fall in love very quickly, they want a relationship to be passionate, and I would say it’s the same for the media.  Even traditional media. They want to be the first to have the news, they want to have the scoop. They want to be the first to have the interview with the gay girl in Damascus, or whoever else. They want their headline to be sexy and us, as consumers we do buy papers, or we do click on line on subjects that are sexy. So we are all concerned by that type of story and the fantasy that was created. It actually is a fantasy that was shared by a lot of people, and nourished by a lot of people, so we’re part of it too.  Amina is sort of a reflection of our own fantasies.  So we have to question also, and may it will resonate with you, because you are from another continent, another part of the world, so you know sometimes how Westerners, how Americans, do have a perspective on the Middle East, or other parts of the world that is very colored by their own fantasies, their own perceptions. So, this is maybe the first thing.  But when I listen to Sandra, because I was close to her, I realized how she didn’t hide and she wasn’t like in her bedroom, under her blanket, and she talked to her friends, and she went to also see someone professional about it.  And she decided that she would go through it, she would make the film and meet with the people.  And I think it’s also honestly I don’t know if would have reacted the same.  I think I would have been more the type of person who would hide, who would be shameful.  But I learned also from her strength, from her wanting to share her story.  Okay, it happened to me, okay I fell in love with someone who wasn’t real, maybe I may look naive.  But we know she’s not that naive, and many people that were fooled weren’t that naive. They were very educated, brilliant. So, the fact that is that it made her take control of her life. Not being a victim.

Sandra Bagaria: it’s embracing it.

MovieMovesMe to Sandra: Are you planning to write a book about it?

Sandra Bagaria: (laughs) That’s what my Mom wants me to do.  You know it’s funny, but when the story happened, I was like, okay, I need to do something with it. I was like okay, maybe I should write a book.  I was like, no.  I doubted I had the skills to do it, or I was not prepared to do it at that moment, and I though sharing it with someone else, and perfectly Sophie, actually was the best decision to make it happen and to have such a strong, all powerful, in a way an educational tool as well, that we could talk about, and debate on the conversation.  So who knows, maybe?

Sophie Deraspe: Some people want to share some of their experiences. There was this guy who stood up and we felt like as a young boy being gay, he ended up having a relationship with an old man who pretended to be a young man and so we felt this guy had gone through something very hard.  He was still there, he didn’t jump off a bridge, but I think for someone like that, the fact that you share your story, the fact that he didn’t feel alone…It made me feel stronger.

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