Profile, Timur Bekmambetov’s thriller for the 21st century, makes clever and abundant use of everyday technology to replicate immediacy and inspire fear in the viewer.
Running time: 105 minutes
“Screen live” is the new hand-held. By having the film screen essentially replicate a computer screen, the viewer gets the visceral sensation that things are taking place “for real” without any apparent staging or editing. Of course, in the back of our heads we know this is all directed (in this case, by Russian director Timur Bekmambetov), but onscreen, we see applications or services that we know – Skype, FaceTime, Gmail – used as we use them, and thus, we sympathise with the main character. But because the lesson of positioning the camera in the physical space of the protagonist failed as far back as the infamous Lady in the Lake, “screen live” films use a much better option: the Web cam.
Obviously, the reason for using “screen live” is to emphasise both the pivotal role that electronic communication plays in the story and to create a novel sense of immediacy and enhance the feeling of realism. The astounding Canadian short film Noah was one of the earliest examples and is still the benchmark, particularly because of its dynamic style of filmmaking that also incorporates a kind of a fast motion to bridge gaps in time, but Bekmambetov’s Profile is another serious and largely successful push for this kind of approach to narrative representation.
Based on the real-life story of French journalist Anna Érelle, who posed as a Muslim girl online to find out more about the recruitment of girls from the West by ISIS fighters and was swept up in a web of trouble, Profile transposes its story to the UK, where Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) is looking for her next big story to break. Constantly behind on her rent and desperate to be taken more seriously in the newsroom, especially by her fast-talking boss, Vicky (a flawless, pirouette-like performance by Christine Adams, who dominates every Skype broadcast in which we see her), she creates a fake Facebook profile as a recent convert to Islam and starts liking and sharing ISIS videos.
She quickly gets noticed by a young man named Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif), a British-born ISIS fighter now living in Syria who asks her about her path to finding Islam and gently quizzes her about one day coming to Syria to join their noble cause. Every conversation with him is a giant lie, and she has to record it all on Skype. At the beginning, an IT employee at the news station, who knows Arabic and whose mother is from Syria, listens in on the conversation and finds the whole thing chilling. So do we, because the full-screen format of the interaction makes us feel we are also implicated in the lie, and we know the punishment for crossing an ISIS fighter – we have seen it in glimpses of the beheading videos that Amy reposts on her profile under the moniker “Melody Nelson”.
To make herself feel more integrated and in order to prevent herself from feeling guilty, helped along by the devastatingly handsome, charming and persuasive Bilel, she gradually cuts off her social interaction with her boyfriend and other friends and focuses on extracting as much information as possible from Bilel. She wants to know how young girls become vulnerable enough to contemplate leaving their community for ISIS-controlled Syria, and the picture Bilel paints is one of a paradise of freedom with ample opportunities to live in luxury for very little money. Compared with the financial difficulty Amy faces in London, we can quickly see how she might be enticed and how she is simulating the conditions for herself to be radicalised, too.
Bekmambetov manages to sustain this constant dread in the pit of our stomachs for a very long time as we see Amy being gripped ever more tightly in the hands of the terrorist, even as she knows better, a bit like the fable of the boiling frog. They spend a great deal of time together, with Bilel doing most of the talking, and she sees him in many different situations, from him playing football with his fellow fighters to cooking at home – an activity they share via Skype that is terrifying precisely because it is so intimate.
The acting from both players is superb, particularly because Kane and Latif are asked to do something quite unusual: always look directly into the (Web) camera. There is almost never any direct physical interaction between the person appearing onscreen and anyone else. And yet, this virtual interaction, nourished mostly by the tension that is generated by all the windows opening and closing as Amy tries to collect information in secret, consistently grabs our attention. Thus, “screen live” is used not only to convey a sense of immediacy and a feeling of familiarity but also to grab our attention and raise our level of anxiety.
On an interesting sidenote, we see the breathless coverage of ISIS in the media, as Amy locates articles online while she is chatting with Bilel. Most of this coverage is about the atrocities committed by the radical Islamists, complete with videos of their actions. But funnily enough, Profile shows all of this information is usually blared across the website of the Daily Telegraph tabloid, which has the opposite effect on many of its readers than the one that is intended: The sheer volume of videos makes the events feel less distant, and thus, those who are susceptible may just be supported in their radicalisation.
While the last 15 minutes of the film devolve into slight hysteria, and the film does cheat a little by skipping over all of Amy’s offline conversations and interactions, this is a powerful piece of filmmaking that lays out a clear path for other directors looking to profit off of this relatively novel format. Time has to be limited, the focus has to be very clear, and the filmmaker should make every effort to utilise the possibilities of his or her screen, which means switching between programmes and windows for the sake of dynamism, secrecy and revelation. Profile does all of this, and the importance of the real-life origins of the story in framing the events as more than just feasible cannot be underestimated. On top of the message that even the smallest interactions online can have very real-life consequences and that you are never really anonymous in the virtual world, this is a very topical film.
This is Bekmambetov’s first time directing but third time producing a “screen live” film. The other two were the 2014 horror Unfriended and 2018 Sundance thriller Search.