CAST: Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams, Morgan Watkins, Amir Rahimzadeh, Emma Cater
RUNNING TIME: 105 mins
BASICALLY…: An undercover journalist (Kane) infiltrates a terrorism recruitment scheme, only to fall for her recruiter (Latif)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
In addition to making some bonkers action movies like Night Watch, Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov is also the reason why we’ve started seeing a bunch of “Screenlife” movies lately (where a narrative takes place almost entirely on a desktop interface, with apps like FaceTime and Skype being used to show the actors; basically, films like Host, Searching and Spree). Having produced the first mainstream attempt Unfriended (and its sequel a few years later), and then officially coining the term not long after, Bekmambetov now gets to direct his own take on the Screenlife sub-genre Profile, which isn’t a horror like the bulk of desktop films, but does focus on something just as terrifying.
Based on actual events, the film takes place in 2014 as journalist Amy (Valene Kane) goes undercover as a recent Islam convert and sets up a fake Facebook profile under the name Melody Nelson. She is doing this to lure in recruiters for ISIS, who have been using social media to spread extremist propaganda and radicalise open-minded converts such as “Melody”, all for the purposes of a report she plans to publish for the press. Very quickly, Amy manages to attract the attention of a recruiter named Bilel (Shazad Latif), and as Melody she begins to chat with him online while he is over in Syria – however, the lines between journalism and genuine sympathy begin to blur as Amy starts to open up more to Bilel, and soon she begins to be won over by his charm and maybe even his cause.
Oh, and it all takes place on a computer screen (just in case that wasn’t already obvious).
Say whatever you will about the Screenlife format, whether you feel it’s a glorified gimmick or a truly unique tool of visual storytelling, but there is something oddly captivating about the thought of seeing events play out from the perspective of a computer screen. Not only does it speak to how we as a society function today with several screens forming huge parts of our lives, but when done right it offers a sense of urgency and leaves you just as hooked as if it were more of straightforward format. Profile, though, is more of a mixed result; while it certainly utilises the format to some often chilling effect – the frequent ringtone of a Skype call from the enemy is like a digitised version of the horror movie monster breaking down the door – there are parts where the format ends up feeling like an afterthought, and that the filmmakers are constantly finding ways around it to tell their story. For instance, the movie seems to be made up of separate segments that were screen- recorded on different days, which serves as a handy excuse to suddenly jump back and forth in time as the story plays out, which goes a little against the real-time definition of Screenlife that Bekmambetov ironically helped to pioneer. It also makes some convenient zoom-ins on certain apps and video calls for dramatic effect, which again disrupts the illusion that you’re watching a computer screen play out as normal, and reminds the viewer that it is indeed a movie we’re watching instead.
The real-life tale on which Profile is based is fascinating; Paris-based journalist Anna Erelle (not her real name) really did pose as a Muslim convert to attract online terrorist recruiters, and used her experiences as the source for her non-fiction book In The Skin of a Jihadist, which would of course go on to inspire the events of this film – albeit, with significant alterations such as moving the action from Paris to London. On the one hand, it does make sense as to why Bekmambetov would opt for his Screenlife format to tell this story, as a lot of the actual journalist’s interactions with extremist figures did take place online, in addition to highlighting the very real concern that social media is being used by organisations like ISIS to influence vulnerable people over to their side. However, the other hand is weighed down by the film’s common tendency to have its lead character make far too many mistakes and bad judgements for the viewer to truly be on her side. Naturally, a recurring theme both here and in the original book is all about how this person is being emotionally suckered in by this charming yet deceitful other person for the purposes of his cause, but in the context of Profile it makes the lead seem way less level-headed and sympathetic than the film thinks she is, especially as she constantly neglects her well-meaning boyfriend and even racially stereotypes the Muslim technician helping her with the remote screen-recording.
Like most Screenlife movies, there is a level of ambition on the part of the filmmakers to tell stories in new and inventive ways, but Profile doesn’t always make the best use of those ways, which is once again odd considering it comes from the very pioneer of the movement.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Profile occasionally utilises its Screenlife format for chilling and suspenseful moments, but it never gets to the heart of the fascinating real-life story it’s based on, and makes too many liberties with both the style and overall storytelling to fully convince as a prime example of the sub-genre.