Profile is a 2018 drama about a journalist who poses online as a teenage Muslim convert from London to strike up a relationship with an Islamist jihadi fighting out in Syria.
The immediate suprise of it is that this simple, high concept film rooted in political reality is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian/Kazakh director who first came to prominence with Night Watch, a supernatural fantasy conceived on a massive scale, with a sizeable cast and a broad canvas.
Profile’s first shot is of a Facebook profile, which Amy (Valene Kane) is trying to fill out – what to call herself, how old should she say she is, which part of London does she come from? She’s clearly trying to create an identity that’s easy to slip into but which keeps her true one hidden.
She checks out a couple of YouTube videos of atrocities committed by jihadists, shares them on her new Facebook profile, sends out a few friend requests at speed, all the while flicking through other apps, looking at email, screengrabbing pages containing useful background, calling her editor at work, taking a call from her househunting boyfriend, turning the volume up, turning it down again, deleting pictures, adding pictures, resizing windows, dismissing one reminding her it’s a friend’s birthday, ignoring one about the rent being due, downloading a new app and unzipping it, using Skype, using Facetime, accessing Yelp, granting computer access to the IT guy at work so he can observe her interactions with her target.
We see it all, first hand, as if we’re doing all this flicking between apps and windows ourselves. The entire film is done this way, much as the Covid horror movie Host took place in a Zoom call. A film playing out on her screen as well as ours.
It’s all entirely believeable (and incidentally explains in a direct way where everyone’s attention span went).
Melody, as she’s now calling her self, posing as a 19-year-old, doesn’t have to wait long. Within minutes she’s got a live one, Abu Bilel (Shazad Latif), his Islamist name, a grinning, charming London lad who is now fighting the good fight out in Syria, where he is getting the respect he never had as a “Paki” back in the UK. The rapidity of this hook-up is one of the very few minor questions you might have with the plausibility of Profile, which is based on the actual case of French journalist Anna Erelle, who wrote a book, In the Skin of a Jihadist, on how she baited an Islamist using precisely these methods.
But back to Amy/Melody. Over the next days and weeks she gently, girlishly, builds up a relationship with Bilel, she in a head scarf, eyes demurely to the ground, he swaggering on the other end of the Skype call, showing her his Kalashnikov. Gradually, she learns more about the recruitment of Western young women, often converts, and how exactly they are spirited into Syria. While she serenely chit-chats away, flirting with Bilel, her fingers are swiping and switching and downloading and saving and screensharing away.
Valene Kane looks young for a woman in her early 30s, but possibly not teenage-young, but it’s worth remembering, before you cry “foul”, that Bilel might also be setting his own version of the honeytrap. He’s a handsome man, and compared to Amy’s slightly peevish boyfriend, Matt (Morgan Watkins), fighting a bloody war does compare favourably to house-hunting and booking a table at a restaurant in the dick-measuring world of masculinity.
Amy, meanwhile, is driven not so much because she’s a crusading journalist riding the white steed of truth into battle, but because she’s broke. The rent is due and she’s only a freelancer. Whether all of this will lead her to a Donnie Brasco conversion – she’ll go over to the other side for real – is one of the teases of this film. Another is whether, in her haste, she’s going to expose herself by leaving open a window that should be hidden.
But in the main Profile’s claim to superiority rest on the way it seemingly casually incorporates its minor themes – tech-slavery, masculinity, and the precarious nature of what used to be a “good” job like journalism – into its narrative. It’s believeably plotted and plausibly played. There’s a “But” coming, obviously. And it’s that Bekmambetov’s focus on the tech might lead you to wonder if all the screen trickery is best reserved for a spooky shocker like Host. On the other hand, what’s more shocking than young women being stoned to death or beheaded on YouTube?
Profile – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021