Profile: The Journalist vs the Jihadist

Valene Kane stars as Amy and Shazad Latif as Abu Bilel Al-Britani in Timur Bekmambetov’s PROFILE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of BEZELEVS and Focus Features

I love Timur Bekmambetov’s early films Nightwatch and Daywatch. The sheer creativity in those films combined with his use of mind-blowing special effects had me once considering Bekmambetov in league with great Jacques Tourneur, director of films such as Cat People and Curse of the Demon. Kind of a mixed bag once in the mainstream, Bekmambetov’s early films helped him get tapped to make big Hollywood action films such as Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Lately, the director has gone on to do a lot of production work, many of those films from a computer camera perspective. Profile, Bekmambetov’s latest, no longer finds the director in a league comparable to Jacques Tourneur, but instead will likely find itself on the forgettable side of his filmography.

There’s an episode of the podcast The Daily I remember listening to a while back called “Trapped in Syria.” It was a two-part story that chronicled a father’s journey to find his daughter who had been lured into marriage and tricked into traveling to Syria. The story was unfathomable, I mean, it has been years since I heard the podcast and I can still recall its surrealism. How patient and charming these recruiters must be to be able to embed themselves in the complete trust of others only to shatter it in an instant. It’s horrifying, but this is the world we live in. This is the territory Profile wants to subject you to and the reason I was intrigued to see it.  

Bilel calls Amy over Skype, his profile pic is that of a Lion displayed over Amy adjusting her hijab
Valene Kane stars as Amy in Timur Bekmambetov’s PROFILE, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Courtesy of BEZELEVS and Focus Features

Taking place in 2014, Profile begins with freelance writer Amy (Valene Kane) putting together a fake Facebook profile in order to get an Isis recruiter to approach her. Almost immediately, Amy receives a message from an extremist, Bilel (Shazad Latif) after sharing his post. The two engage in conversation and Amy informs her editor Vick (Christine Adams) that she has a lead on a potentially huge story. She has found a way to go undercover to expose the Isis recruitment process. As conversations between Bilel and Amy go on throughout the weeks and the two get closer, Amy begins to fall for the known terrorist on the other end of the computer. 

Profile is based on Anna Érelle’s novel In the Skin of a Jihadist, which tells her story of going undercover to infiltrate Isis’ recruitment that targeted young women through social media. Érelle’s story is intensely gripping and hearing her tell it is far better than the way it’s prepared on-screen. Frankly, the film itself just feels frustrating as it lingers on the intense relationship between Amy and Bilel. The film is likely trying to show you how easy it is for young women to slip under the captive spells of the manipulative recruiters, and such was the case with that man’s daughter in the aforementioned “Trapped in Syria” piece. However, since it feels like journalist Amy has a strong support group in friends like Kathy (Emma Cater), boyfriend Matt (Morgan Watkins) and editor Vick, the idea that she has succumbed to the lonely isolated lifestyle of the the idyllic terrorist recruit she’s portraying seems unrealistic.

I also need to make mention of a wholly irksome moment at the start of the film. Before Amy is contacted by Bilel for their first conversation, Vick requests that she tapes her interactions and sends her a technical support staff member to help her out. Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh) ends up being the tech assigned to assist Amy but who she immediately dismisses based solely on the fact that he is of Syrian descent. The film highlights this racial profiling a little to denote Amy’s fear of the situation, knowing she could be killed if her identity gets out to the terrorists, but it’s mostly just a play on words for the film’s namesake. This plot point adds nothing but infuriation as Lou is judged solely as a representation of a people before Amy goes on to knowingly engage with a terrorist and then bewilderingly fall in love with him. 

An Apple computer screen grab shows Amy's face next to a google translation of "I love you"
Valene Kane stars as Amy in Timur Bekmambetov’s PROFILE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of BEZELEVS and Focus Features

I must admit, I’m not a huge fan of the computer screen as a cinematic approach. Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching presented itself in a very interesting way befitting its story, but not much else has displayed the same artistic need. Horror has done far better with it as a medium with Bekmambatov having produced both Unfriended films and movies such as Rob Savage’s pandemic-based Host have shown ingenuity in crafting a film told solely through a computer’s camera. Host also has an appropriate runtime of fifty-seven minutes that doesn’t wear out its welcome. 

Unfortunately, Profile is one-hundred and five minutes and does not contain the patience the material needs to thrive. The movie begins with a good premise and ends where it indelibly should, but the middle relies on a romance that centers between the journalist and the jihadist, and as charismatic as Bilel outwardly appears, Amy should be slightly more alert to what he’s trying to accomplish. A lot of this could be because we’re only seeing videos being played back through a computer screen and no time passes for the audience between Amy and Bilel’s conversations. These streamlined edits make everything feel as though the story is playing out a lot quicker than intended and the film snowballs into an ever-increasingly unlikely scenario before finishing where the audience knows it’s going. The part about this that feels like a punch in the gut, is that a lot of dialogue and interaction that take place in the film actually happened.  

Overall, Profile is watchable and has a couple of brief moments of serious tension, ultimately, however, the film is lackluster and largely unimaginative. I genuinely believed this would be a bit more of a cat-and-mouse thriller, but it really never has the chase to warrant being called that. Besides excellent performances by Shazad Latif and Valene Kane, there isn’t a whole lot else to dwell on for Profile. Honestly, read Anna Érelle’s book and listen to The Daily’s “Trapped in Syria” podcast if you really want to engage yourself in this stark reality of dishearteningly true events.  

Profile is now playing in theaters. 

Written by Sean Parker

Sean lives just outside of Boston. He loves great concerts, all types of movies, video games, and all things nerd culture.

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