This piece is written by our guest writer Redmond Bacon.
We all know that being online is dangerous – with sexual predators, fraudsters, and racists on Twitter always waiting around the corner – but have you ever tried signing up to join ISIS? This is the conceit of Profile, which displays what happens when a journalist is willing to risk absolutely everything for the sake of getting a good story. Told entirely from the screen of a British reporter’s laptop, the resultant movie works both as a great thriller and a thematically rich investigation into the nature of ISIS, reporters, and the dangers of social media.
Amy (Valene Kane) is a journalist researching ISIS recruiters who have been known to find women to join their mission online. They look for Western converts as they are seen as sexually desirable by the death cult, and can be sold as sex slaves for a lot of money. To start with, she makes a new Facebook profile. She aptly names herself Melody Nelson after the famous Serge Gainsbourg song, which is famously about a predatory man seducing a young teenager. After sharing videos of ISIS footage on Facebook, she gets a friend request from a man named Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazed Letif). Ostensibly using him to get material for her article, she finds herself getting drawn in further and further, until there is a very real possibility she might head off to Syria herself.
The idea of telling a thriller entirely from the perspective of a laptop screen isn’t a new one, already displayed in films such as Searching and Unfriended. Profile justifies the use of a potentially gimmicky technique by finding the exact subject matter it should be used for. Based on a true story, this kind of thing is constantly happening, with social media playing a key role in recruiting people to fanatical ideologies across the spectrum such as ISIS, the incel movement, and nativist terrorism. Profile makes it feel vital by exploiting the mixed-media aspect, combining video calls, YouTube videos, online articles and even the humble notes application to great effect, all soundtracked by Amy’s very own iTunes playlist. While it’s unrealistic that every single call would be FaceTimed or Skype-d (and god knows how Bilel gets so much data on his phone from Syria), this takes place in a world we recognise, making you wonder what you would do if you were in a similar situation. We can’t all hop on a plane to Syria and start reporting from the ground (like in the recent Girls of The Sun), but we can all make a Facebook account and start chatting to Jihadists in a moment of minutes.
What’s so amusing about the story is how it doubles up as an exposé into the inner lives of freelance journalists. Living in an apartment right next to London Fields, Amy is perpetually behind on the rent. She needs this story as much for journalistic integrity as a need to stay in her own flat. This is something she hides from her boyfriend, who keeps interrupting her attempts to uncover the inner workings of ISIS to send her footage of nice new places in Richmond. Here the clichés of journalism – hard drinking, missing key engagements with friends, ruining relationships – are reinvigorated as they are presented in a new and fresh way.
Amy is not just a journalist working on a story, but something of an everyman by the way her online concerns have a universal ring to them. Things such as googling what someone says in the middle of a conversation, or working on two different chat platforms at once, are extremely relatable, leading one to ponder about the nature of internet conversation in real life. We are all different people depending on who we talk to, Profile just takes that self-presentation to a whole new level. And for Amy, the chance of being exposed by a lazy mistake could spell the end of her, thus combining the banal and the terrifying to excellent effect.
It’s the adherence to detail that makes the story really work. Proper brands, such as Facebook, Skype, and FaceTime, are used to lend authenticity; but even the smaller things – such as a low balance alert from HSBC – are completely accurate. With so much going on, it’s even the kind of movie that would benefit from repeat viewings; every list of emails and previous messages filling us in on more of the backstory. This approach also makes it hard to tell if Amy really does have feelings for Bilel – images of them cooking curry together and him wanting to see her with her headscarf off are particularly sweet – making one wonder what exactly she will do by the end. And he is not without sympathy, telling her about the time he was called a “paki” back in the United Kingdom and playing football with his friends. He is without question a ruthless murderer, yet the film does the wonderful thing of explaining why he might be this way, somehow finding time to criticise British racism along the way. This gives the film a depth to its characters it didn’t particularly need to have; the fact that it does only speaks to how well made it is.
Edited with precision by Andrey Shugaev, the movie zips along nicely, making every click, message, and video call really pop out of the screen. Easily the best film Timur Bekmambetov – director of Wanted and Ben-Hur – has ever made, Profile is essential late night viewing.