Screenlife is a bright new method of filmmaking and Timur Bekmambetov is its strongest advocate. After he produced Unfriended (2014) for a meager million dollars and it banked $65 million worldwide, it was readily apparent that there was a new market ripe for exploitation. Given the unprecedented success for the format, it’s unsurprising that his latest film, Profile, is a straight-up pitch for that format of storytelling. It’s not surprising that he inked a five-picture deal with Universal, to produce a steady stream of these movies. They are superbly efficient to make and when one really breaks through — see: Searching (2018) with a budget a touch under a million and a box office of $75 million — the results speak for themselves. It’s very strange, then, that Profile sat dormant since its 2018 Berlinale premiere, where it was chosen as an audience favorite. All the film may have needed, was for our context around making films to radically shift, and for something shot over computer screens to make all the sense in the world with our present context from the pandemic.
What does Profile add to the conversation of films conducted entirely on computer screens? Based on the best-selling non-fiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist (2015), written by a French journalist who entered herself into such a volatile situation she had to change her name and obtain constant police protection, the film is a harrowing on-screen account of Isis recruitment methods, and how young women are manipulated on social media to join the organization. It’s an anxiety-wracking on-screen portrayal, as Amy (Valene Kane)’s every interaction with recruiter Abu (Shazad Latif) threatens to reveal her true identity, as a reporter exposing the organization from within, while she also becomes charmed and essentially radicalized, simply by engaging so closely with the whole process.
The film has to walk a delicate balance. It hopes to exist as a tightrope walk between the intriguing interpersonal simplicity of its framing devices and the need to tell a captivating story within such tightly defined limitations. The artifice of the whole situation is always apparent, making it nigh impossible to truly invest in these characters. Because we do not get to see anything of their personal lives, except what they show to us on their screens (how they wish to outwardly project themselves, both playing potentially self-created roles), any empathy for these characters is hard won.
There is also an intrinsic problem with the format. It is not very good at judging the passing of time. Because this is a story taking place over many weeks, it often jumps around, and we find out from file names and the characters’ browsing habits, where in the story we are meant to be. The film can often feel like a hunt for context. It tries to really map the user interface actions to the way a journalist would interact with her computer. If these basic interactions are not interesting, the tension escalates when she’s in the middle of a chat with an ISIS recruiter and the facade of her reality she has built for him begins to crumble. The dog she says she doesn’t have barks in the background. She forgets to put on her headdress in an impromptu call. These moments do carry fascination with the format, playing into this whole dangerous game she has constructed.
Because we are tied to only Amy’s screen, we only get one perspective of the story. Thus, it all lies a little flat and linear, as we comb through these computer documents and experience one-way relationships. It has a hard time defining Amy’s real life relationships with her boyfriend. Eventually, she has cultivated a more believable romance with her recruiter. The way it plays on screen is improbable and it’s difficult to put any real stock into how that developed, since we know so little else about the actual character. There are interesting moments, where she begins to divulge what seem like real life details, but without any grounding in who she truly is it’s hard to tell what we should care about.
What works extremely well is the efficiency of the film. Profile moves at a steady clip. It gives us information selectively, we end up missing large chunks of time and space in its characters lives, but when it really tightens the tension and gets moving toward its frightening results, the whole thing pays off as a neatly wound up thriller. Any time Valene Kane and Shazad Latif are on video chat, the film lifts off with an inspired grace for its format. It becomes an effective sales pitch for making movies this way. It’s not always a good movie, certainly, but it’s a darn good format, and given more nimble writing and better side characters to really grasp onto, there’d be a remarkable little lightweight thriller in there.
Ultimately, Profile moves in with the middle of the pack. It’s a just-fine execution of the Screenlife premise. These films must bank heavily on the idea that we are most honest in front of our screens. That what the lead character is doing is a natural extension of what any of us do everyday, just with higher stakes. It may never achieve anything like total synthesis with its themes and characterizations, but Timur Bekmambetov remains a proficient and steadfast advocate for this emerging way of making movies. Our entire lives and the ways we communicate have been radically upended the last year, shouldn’t our movies be changing, too?