Review: 'Profile' (2018) Dir. Timur Bekmambetov
Timur Bekmambetov continues his work in the "screen life" genre, this time with another very real and relevant topic of terrorist recruitment and how online danger can spiral out of control...
London journalist Amy Whittaker (Kane) is working on her latest news piece; exploring and exposing online ISIS recruitment operating across Europe. She takes it upon herself to pose as young girl, Harmony, a converted Islamist, to attract attention and get the story.
It doesn't take long for her social media profile to attract ISIS fighter Bilel (Latif) in Syria, and his fascination with Harmony puts Amy under pressure to work to convince her boss, Vick (Adams), and colleague, Lou (Rahimzadeh), to back her as she maintains her deception.
The further Amy goes with convincing Bilel she is devoted to the Islamic faith and wants transportation to Syria, the more Amy falls into an intense web of trust and forbidden romance, working to pressures she fails to understand and danger she can't see...
Russian Director Timur Bekmambetov has helped shape the screenlife genre for mainstream audiences by producing films such as 2018s Searching (along with the 2022 sequel) and Unfriended: Dark Web. His first time directing a screenlife film brings together all the skills and unique elements of his previous work for something equally, if not more, relevant and immsersive as both a thriller and drama. While Bekmambetov directs a film that is a lot more linear and simple in terms of overall production, his involvement as screenwriter and producer helps keep the genre focused and tight, and you can feel a reall unification between him and the cast in delivering just what is required to sell the narrative and move the story forward.
Profile deals with a very relevant story and one that all audiences will be aware of in some shape or form. Be it the threat of online recruitment for terrorism, using religion and romance as a trap to snare vulnerable young women, or that of deception and hostility using the internet for a greater purpose. Bekmambetov knows just what message he wants to convey here, and doesn't make it an easy or comfortable watch for audiences from the start; he has you questioning morals, praying for salvation, longing for peaceful outcomes and willing on the humanity that is hidden behind smoke and mirrors.
The story sees journalist Amy working on a story about online recruiters in terrorist groups, and posing to be a vulnerable woman to honeytrap a recruiter. The plan doesn't take long when Syrian fighter Bilel connects and makes friends, opening the door for communication. Yet working to tight deadlines and a skeptical boss, Amy pushes herself to go further and further down the rabbit hole in the quest for her headline. All the while this risks alienating her from reality and increases the danger she is in, despite "hiding" behind a computer screen and webcam.
The reason this simple story works so well under Bekmambetov is down to our two main leads - Valene Kane as Amy and Shazad Latif as Bilel.
As this is adapated from a book, In The Skin of a Jihadist by Anna Erelle, Kane doesn't let you lose sight of the humanity of Amy and the rollercoaster of emotion she is dealing with, because this is a very real scenario and not played for anything but truth.
Kane hooks you from the second she appears; an established role, and established goal and an establish personality we literally have to almost keep up with as she races to get her story. Kane has a wonderful vulnerabilty as Amy, but also a huge naivety about the world she is breaking into. She's a woman risking it all for the story, and you find during some moments you just want to shake sense into her, but sometimes you just want to protect her. She's a very real woman.
Alongside Kane in an equally pivotal role, if not moreso, is Latif as Syrian freedom fighter Bilel. Latif is cast perfectly here, and encapsualtes everything audiences could imagine in a freedom fighter; young, handsome, devoted, passionate and charming. Latif doesn't need to do anything except convery a small sense of vulnerbailtiy but pride in what he is doing for you to fall for him. This is a fascinating aspect to the film; you allow yourself to understand, to feel and to relate to a terrorist when everything is stripped away and you're face to face with a young man. Kane and Latif spend their screentime together literally on a screen, in scenarios including cooking lessons, reciting poetry, tours of war-torn towns, sweet shop visits and hotel room liasons. Not what you may expect from a "screenlife thriller", but this is just the tip of the iceberg and where our two leads shine.
The dymanic between Kane and Latif is something that feels so raw and new, it's hard to think it's been rhearsed and scripted. Testament to these two young actors, the relationship we see is absorbing and often quite tragic. As a viewer, you are part of their relationship and see everything play out as is; you feel for them, you relate to them, you understand them - but you never really know how far to go in terms of WANTING to be on their side and letting your guard down.
Shot via a laptop screen and webcam, there is no risk of you getting lost along the way. This is the huge gain for screenlife films; you are forced to pay attention to every detail, every sound, every word, because it all adds to the rolling tension and drama. For a generation who is now used to the sights and sounds of virtual desktops, Skype calls and instant messaging, the team use what's on their laptop to create the soundtrack, which is hauntingly effective. The rest of the supporting cast appear via video link effective to their roles and all adding new dynamics to the characters and story.
Kudos on this part to Kane, Latif and the production team who created the reality of using a laptop for effective use. Everything Kane types, interacts with and uses on screen is what we see, so expect to see typos, iTunes songs popping up and random pictures across a busy worktop. It's real screenlife drama at it's finest. Pings, calls and pop-ups are sounds that trigger anxiety and panic when the story continues to snowball with added deception, pressure and sometimes hostility. There's no real breaks in the flow for anyone to catch their breath or take a step back; it's relentless, often claughstrophobic but always engaging.
This is a real showcase for the genre and for Kane and Latif as actors, and even when the narrative slows down for character exploration and motivation, the ticking time-bomb that explodes during the final act is ever present and hits hard in how real this message is.
A low-key production for the screenlife genre works on a high-end scale. Absorbing performances, a chilling narrative and an immersive look at a very real and very relative subject.
'Profile' is a Bazelevs Company production