“You would never lie to me,” says Abu Bilel Al-Britani, a hunkish and charming Jihadi recruiter for ISIS, as he Skypes with Amy Whittaker in her South London flat.
But we are well into the age of online ‘Catfishing,’ and Amy is not one of the many lost and lonely young European women whom ISIS lured to become war-brides in Raqqa and the swelling Islamic State Caliphate. She is actually a freelance journalist (think Vice Media, and its immersive style of reporting) who has pitched a story to one of her regular editors about uncovering the process of how savvy ISIS operators convince alienated Westerners to drop their lives and fly to war-torn Syria and re-invent their lives ‘with purpose’ in the recent seven-year horror show of violence and terror.
Trust is as much of the foundation of journalism (these days it is eroding alarmingly online), as it is in any online relationships (ditto). The violation of such trusts is mined in an immediate and immersive fashion in the latest ‘desktop horror’ picture, Profile, from Timur Bekmambetov.
The Kazakhstan director cut his teeth on glossy, but R-rated, Russian fantasy blockbusters Night Watch and Day Watch before moving into Hollywood to continually increase the budget and excess of popcorn cinema with Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. On the side, he has started a cottage industry of Desktop Cinema, what he calls, ‘Screen Life.’ Unfriended, its recent sequel Dark Web and the John Cho thriller, Searching, are movies entirely mediated through computer screens, with all of the ‘shots’ being web-browsers, instant messages, Skype and Facetime windows.
Beyond the narrative and storytelling risks of setting the film entirely on Amy’s screen, Profile goes one further by adapting its story from In The Skin of A Jihadist, by French journalist Anna Erelle, whom the character of Amy is based upon, and pulled a similar high risk stunt back in 2014. What Amy does here, and Anna did for real then, is profoundly ill-advised, and ethically dubious.
There are many ‘movie’ twists and turns over the course of the film adaptation, and I am not sure how faithful it is to the source material, but there is no denying that adding the layer of ‘based on a true story’ amplifies the ick factor of the film.
Amy begins her undercover journey by making a Facebook page for her ‘character,’ Melody Nelson (side note: Serge Gainsbourg, The Pixies, and remixes of Radiohead function both as soundtrack and expositional playlist). Melody is the online profile an impressionable young Londoner who has just converted to Islam, donned an hijab, and has been sharing videos of Caliphate soldiers, signalling a desire to be radicalised.
It is not long before she is contacted by Bilel, who immediately starts flirting with cat gifs (the universal language of the internet) and showing off the weapons and privileges of his rank, combined with stories of his previous empty life in London before making his way to the Middle East and glory. It is all hokey and earnest, but exactly the sort of ways we clumsily try to make an impression with our ‘most impressive self’ online.
With the tech support of the newsroom’s IT staff and a screen recording app, Amy has been capturing her entire screen as Bilel and her start of an online relationship. Her Skyping from her kitchen, and him from various locations, dusty urban roads, a makeshift soccer pitch playing football with a diverse group of immigrants who have joined the Caliphate — soccer being the universal language of sports — using his mobile phone, or an office with a desktop computer and a bunch of cubicles of other ISIS operators set up like a telemarketing operation.
The ease of navigating geography and political boundaries (and good sense) via online communication is both disquieting and utterly natural. We have lived with this in the background for a decade at this point, from the Arab Spring to Edward Snowdon to Russian hackers.
Amy takes some (but not much) care to ‘divide’ the online social network between her real life — a Liberal, urbane Millennial existence with her partying friends, Border Collie, and milquetoast fiancé — and her submissive, devout Melody character. Much of the tension in the first half of the movie is her real life intruding on her online courtship with Bilel. She is multitasking (as one does) paying bills, online shopping, and doing online research while waiting for Bilel to call, but she is also in the midst of moving into a shared apartment, and he is constantly intruding on her undercover work to discuss floor to ceiling windows and rent budgets.
Bekmambetov gets a lot of expositional heavy lifting, and even what might be called character development, by letting us watch the mundane details of Amy’s online presence, her Spotify playlist, online shopping, and what details she Googles to help her build her backstory for Bilel. There is an ugly bit of racism early on, bourne out of Amy’s anxieties, that adds to the verisimilitude.
The screw-tightening increasingly dominates as Amy gets deeper into her web of lies, so much so that I started peering around the frame of her Skype window, or other things she has open on one of her desktops. Did she leave a photo, or a document or article of clothing on that table in the background that may undermine the facade? For instance, Amy has to constantly cover up a skull tattoo on one of her fingers because body ink is Haram (forbidden by Islamic Law), will she get too busy and forget? While Bekmambetov keeps one window as the primary focus, there is enough extranuous detail to make the dynamic play.
Amy’s emotional investment increases as they cook curry together over Skype (as one does), and divulge intimate details about their past and their families. Anyone who has been caught up in long-distance, online relationships, will recognize certain signs. And horror films excel in taking cogent, relatable, fears (betrayal of trust, social embarrassment, being caught cheating, or cheated upon) and exaggerating them for maximum effect.
The trick is to not ‘go too far’ and break the audience in the process.
Profile takes things very far.
Seeing ISIS flags, and their vile Youtube propaganda, many of which are essentially snuff films, used in an entertainment context (scenes with Shazad Latif, who plays Bilel, were shot in Cyprus), combined with the ‘Based on A True Story’ angle, the film can be earnest and manipulative and icky all at the same time. So can a toxic relationship, by the way. Your morality may vary.
Watching what is essentially a Macbook screen on a giant cinema screen with an audience, the experience here is surprisingly seamless. We’re living in these places a lot these days, so the storytelling grammar is quite natural. The film is not fully absent of traditional filmmaking, as sharp eyed viewers (OK, editing nerds) may note that, for most part, we not actually watching Amy do the things she is doing, but rather her reviewing all of her recorded files for the past 20 something days, while on the cusp of a ‘big decision.’ There is the cue of using a song, here a remix of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, twice to book-end the ‘relatively safe’ part of the film, and to signal a move into an the ‘no safety net’ final act where Amy is, as the undercover cops say, “in too deep.”
By using an image of Disney’s Snow White (in an Hijab of course) as Melody’s avatar, Bekmambetov indicates that Profile is as much an attempt to make new mythologies and morality tales, as the Greeks or the Brothers Grimm did in their day, ones that exist in our new virtual spaces while they are still in their infancy, and the fear of unknown consequence is akin to medieval peasants venturing into the deep, dark woods at night.
Truth or fiction, Profile is a good start.
Review originally published during Fantasia in July 2018. The film will open in theaters on Friday, May 14 via Focus Features.