How far would you go to find the truth?
How far would you go to find the truth? That is the premise of Profile, a film by Timur Bekmambetov. Originally released in 2018 and even circulated at SXSW, Profile is a unique experience as it takes place completely on a computer’s interface. The story circles a journalist who baits a terrorist for information, posing as a new Islamic convert in order to gain access to the secrets of the recruiting process. Distributed by Focus Features, Profile is now set to finally be released in the United States this May. But was it worth the wait?
The majority of screen time is dedicated to watching the characters work and converse through messaging apps, Skype and email. Much of the action is implied but we are given small vignettes of the evolving story. Screen recordings are the canvas Bekmambetov employs to document the evolution of the journalist and terrorist forging what appears to be a legitimate friendship. And perhaps more. These pay off in stressful ways later as well. A character is seemingly killed in an explosion. A frustrated character ends their relationship. A tenacious and implacable boss pushes her employer without empathy. All of these situations play out in quick succession. This leaves the viewer left suspended in a space between entrapment and voyeurism. We can never look away.
A struggling journalist, Amy Whittaker, is on the cusp of a huge story. Whittaker (Valene Kane) has been following the recent trend of young girls fleeing their home to go join ISIS, fully converting to Islam, and therefore renouncing all ability to ever return home. Social media has been the tool the jihadists have been wielding to peddle both their fear mongering and romanticising. Amy creates a new Facebook account as new convert Melody Nelson and with some colleagues’ help she engages in a conversation with an extremist named Bilel (Shazad Latif).
Bilel is a recruiter of sorts for ISIS and takes an immediate interest in Melody. Their engagements are documented by Amy via screen recordings. The recordings are catalogued in a folder on her desktop and serve as the progression in the film’s runtime of their unorthodox courtship. Amy’s facade as Melody asks Bilel probing questions about the propaganda, his motivations, his process. He in turn demands loyalty by making her share her screen but promises royalty in the throes of marriage.
“There’s no future in Britain.” he tells Melody.
The social circle around Amy includes her friend Kathy, her boyfriend Matt and her editor Vicki. All of which lend their support in the appropriate context. Mostly in the form of exhaustive patience as Melody and Bilel graduate from small talk about cats and freedom to intimate episodes with Bilel teaching her to cook curry and Melody visiting the sweet shop that he enjoyed in his youth. I feel this is what pandemic dating must look like. What started as an assignment to pay the rent for Amy is turning downward to a seductive slope of danger. They begin to reveal to each other the trauma and abandonment of their past. The air is thick with the scent of sadness and desperation between these two individuals. Amy feels stuck with her routine and stale life in London. She has become entranced, ensnared in the honey pot that Bilel has made for her.
After a brief scare on Amy’s part, she takes part in a ritual to marry Bilel via Skype before proceeding to take the next steps to fly to Amsterdam and eventually Syria and presumably into his arms. She initially balks at this dramatic next step, but knows this is the best route for the story. Right? The climax of the film takes place in an Amsterdam hotel room. Up until this point, the viewer has been cemented to Amy’s flat in London. Matt has left her, her editor decides to drop the story (which is incredibly unprofessional at this point) and Amy gets into her first real altercation with Bilel. To reveal the ending would be unfair and ultimately pointless. This was based on a true story and the very notion of these events unfolding is terrifying.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The bright spot in Profile is the charisma brought to the screen by Latif. While there are many interactions between characters via Facetime or Skype messaging, some of the most crucial points of development lie in the texting portion. We have a front row seat to the double life Amy is living and her gradual descent into falling for Bilel. Something as simple as a text or email can reveal its intent - or lack thereof - when a character types out a sentence only to delete half of it and write out a more agreeable response. I feel we’ve all been there.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
Profile carries a meta quality as it is viewed through multiple screens. It is just one giant screen recording off of a laptop, however. There was some care to add purposeful interference between the long distance video calls. While I appreciate the tech savviness of Amy as she navigates through her interface between apps, browsers and files, it did get a little messy and convoluted in parts. This may turn off some viewers. It did showcase her growing levels of stress but also her resourcefulness.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
I feel that music should never be stressful. And yet, it is here. Amy is constantly jumping back and forth between who she is and her character of Melody who has ostensibly sworn off Western culture and influence. Before or after her calls with Bilel, her computer’s playlist is constantly playing various music. This programmed use of secular trappings seemed a bit Pavlovian to me. When we hear music playing does it mean she's safe? It was interesting at first, but by the end of the film, it felt gimmicky.
While I enjoyed the ride with Profile, I’m not sure it’ll captivate everyone the same way. It is stressful and is meant to be so. I cannot be blind to the real world implications this film may have on its chief target: Islamic extremists. But all the same, it is art and I feel compelled to respect the courage to film such a story about such a tenuous subject. The call to action it implores about the dangers of terrorist recruitment is important.
There were a few contrivances with the film that filter down to what I would call “gripes”. Mainly a few characters being inconvenient towards Amy for the sake of inconvenience seemed a tad cheap. But there isn’t much more to complain about here.
Profile is far from perfect. In fact, many beats are very predictable. How many times have we seen a character lie about their situation and motives, only to teeter towards going full board into their new identity? I don’t mind predictability if the road takes a different route to the destination. Profile does just that. It is a film that is brilliant in how basic it is. I don’t know if I’ll ever watch it again to be perfectly honest. But I am glad I saw it at least once.
Focus Features will release PROFILE in theaters May 14th, 2021