‘Profile’ Brings Timur Bekmambetov’s Screen Life to the World of Jihadi Recruitment

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Profile (CREDIT: BEZELEVS and Focus Features)

Starring: Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams, Morgan Watkins, Amir Rahimzadeh, Emma Carter

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Language and Images of Violent ISIS Activity

Release Date: May 14, 2021 (Theaters)

I’m a sucker for a good gimmick, and Timur Bekmambetov has hit upon a pretty dang excellent one with his series of “Screen Life” films. With the likes of Unfriended, Unfriended: Dark Web, and Searching, he’s produced some weirdly irresistible flicks that are presented entirely within the confines of a computer screen. Now he’s stepped into the Screen Life Director’s Chair himself for Profile, based on the nonfiction book In The Skin of a Jihadist, which documents journalist Anna Erelle’s efforts to contact an ISIS recruiter via Facebook. I’ve watched these movies on the big screen and on the TV screen, but not once have I ever watched them in their entirety on a computer. They certainly don’t lose any effectiveness they might have had by playing out just a few inches away from my face. No matter what distance I watch them from, they’re thoroughly intimate and all-encompassing, and Profile is no different.

Profile‘s stand-in for Erelle is Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane), a constantly stressed-out London-based reporter with an assignment that promises a rewarding payday but at the expense of her emotional stability. Under the guise of “Melody,” a 20-year-old convert to Islam, she soon attracts the attraction of Bilel (Shazad Latif), an ISIS leader in the market for recruiting young European women to Syria to join the fight for the Islamic State. Both Amy and Bilel are making their cases through layers of dishonesty, as she concocts justifications for her investigates instincts and he underplays his organization’s propensity for violence and human trafficking. But the best undercover work is driven by honest emotions, and Amy and Bilel do appear to forge a genuine connection. Bilel also has roots in London, and they’re both disillusioned by a country that failed to take care of their families. Everyone has their vulnerabilities, and Profile makes it inescapably clear how they can be preyed upon.

I’ve been singing the praises of Screen Life from the beginning, and this might just be its best use yet. We’re entirely stuck within the point of view of Amy, someone who’s losing any outside perspective that could keep her from losing herself. She gradually merges with the Melody persona, and for an hour and a half, you just might as well. Our online lives are not our entire lives, and it is important to be regularly reminded of that. Profile‘s entire raison d’être may be that everything is always connected, but weirdly enough, it might also be one of the most effective tools to convince us to step away every once in a while. Indeed, this is a movie that has been made by people who have beheld modern society and wondered, “What have we wrought?”

Profile is Recommended If You Like: The Screen Life genre, Undercover work, Freeze frame detective skills

Grade: 4 out of 5 Winking Cat GIFs

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Searching’ Achieves Intimacy Through Screen-Based Storytelling

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CREDIT: Sebastian Baron/Screen Gems

This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Joseph Lee

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Angry Outbursts and References to Patterns of Illegal Behavior

Release Date: August 24, 2018 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide August 31, 2018

If a movie is going to have a form-busting structure, it is probably best if its story works on its own merits regardless of the filmmaking style, unless the format is so unusual that audiences don’t even know how to process it. Searching is not the first film to be told entirely on computer screens, nor is it even the first from producer Timur Bekmambetov. This is just the latest in his “Screenlife” series, following in the innovative footsteps of Unfriended and its sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web. Searching is the story of widowed father David Kim (John Cho) desperately looking for his missing teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La), and it is compelling enough on its own beyond its medium-within-a-medium approach. But its unique structure proves to be an ingenious method for plumbing characters’ psychology.

Much of Searching is about David coming to terms with the fact that he may not have known his daughter as well as he thought he did. This is a phenomenon that many, perhaps all, parents experience at some point, but rarely under such tragic circumstances. Talking him through much of this crisis is Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), the case’s lead detective, who assures David that there are always secrets between even the closest of loved ones. It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind for any viewers trying to suss out the twist to come when the truth is revealed, and it also illuminates what the Screenlife form can achieve. In one early scene, before David knows for sure that Margot is truly missing, he composes an angry text message to her … and then deletes and replaces it with something much more civil. The intimacy granted to viewers by seeing David’s process is on the same level of that between the reader and narrator of a novel.

One of Searching‘s major charms is its heavy use of outdated technology, not in terms of fetishization but rather the stasis typical of suburban parents. The opening montage features David and his wife keeping track of Margot’s early years on their new Windows XP computer. Cut to the present day, and David is still using a now decade-and-a-half-old operating system. It still runs perfectly fine, so there is no reason to be a consumerist shill and insist that he make an upgrade. But sticking to this routine is indicative of how he goes about his personal life as well. The nature of his quality time spent with Margot has not changed much since his wife died. But their relationship needs to change, because she is almost an adult and they need to talk to each other about how the loss of Mom has affected both of them. Searching does not take a stance on whether the domination of screens in modern society is a net positive or negative, but by thoroughly examining how much we document on computers, it demonstrates how valuable it is to occasionally keep track of those records.

Searching is Recommended If You Like: The Fugitive, Law & Order, Organizing Photos on Your Computer

Grade: 4 out of 5 File Folders