Profile’s subject matter is more than a little silly, but its thrilling Screenlife tinkering speaks to the form’s malleability and still-untapped potential.
2021 really might be Timur Bekmambetov’s year, an achievement the director/producer has been slowly building toward ever since the game-changing release of 2014’s Unfriended, the film that announced the Screenlife method as a new, viable cinematic form. That first film was essentially created through traditional means of screen recording, but in the years since, Bekmambetov has cultivated the process, bringing more sophistication (and guiding rules) to this filmmaking approach. Screenlife is, of course, a cinematic aesthetic where the camera assumes a screen-facing POV, the audience taking on the perspective of characters as they use smartphones or computers, with the traditional grammar and action of cinema translated into the movement between pages, tabs, applications, etc. The films that Bekmambetov has produced in this manner have been significant financial successes, all of them made for budgets that would be impossible for any other contemporary Hollywood production — the two Unfriended films were made for $1 million each, John Cho thriller Searching for $880,000 — which has made it possible for the Screenlife project to continue in a major way. Last June, Bekmambetov set a 5-picture deal with Universal, giving the studio the opportunity to release five of the apparently 50 Screenlife projects the producer has in development, which may or may not include the phenomenal Romeo and Juliet adaptation R#J from this past Sundance, or the upcoming sequel to Searching. It’s a tremendous win for what began as a risky endeavor, but if anything, time has been on Bekmambetov’s side, pointing out to Deadline last year: “During this crazy time, we have been living in Screenlife mode, and it is very organic to produce movies because they can be done while people are home in their safe place.”
This recent breakthrough has also seemingly triggered the long-awaited release of Profile from Focus Features after an extensive festival run in 2018 that never resulted in distribution. The first Screenlife film that Bekmambetov has directed, Profile is as formally fascinating as any of the projects he’s shepherded in as producer, but it’s not hard to see why buyers weren’t eager to snap this film up. Adapted from the nonfiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist, Profile takes place on the laptop of Amy (Valene Kane), a British journalist in her mid-30s who poses as a 20-year-old Muslim convert on Facebook in an attempt to gather intel on ISIS recruitment tactics for a story. Her plan goes off almost too well, and after reposting a few beheading videos, Bilel (Shazad Latif), a young, handsome ISIS recruiter, slides into Amy’s DMs to suss out her commitment to the cause. This quickly transforms into flirtatious Skyping between the two — Amy watches makeup tutorials on “how to appear 10 years younger” to accommodate the face reveal — and before long, it’s unclear who is actually catfishing who.
Needless to say, Profile is a fairly tasteless movie, though in a sort of totally earnest way that will probably garner it admirers in proportion to the haters. There’s an audacity that’s hard not to be swept up in, telling this story in this way, but it’s also hard not to scoff a bit at Bekmambetov’s passion for this material, a resurrection of silly white slavery tropes, the stuff of much conservative fear-mongering. Conversely, the approach to rendering Profile’s screen-based world is thrilling in its forward-thinkingness, expertly employing the visual language we’ve come to expect from a Screenlife film, with new tricks riffing further on these mechanics. Bekmambetov gets particularly great mileage out of staging scenes involving Amy juggling multiple video chats, being coached by a coworker on how to present and perform for Bilel as she’s holding conversation with him, demonstrating the social media feedback loop in real time. There’s also some pretty ingenious tinkering with the properties and capabilities of the screen-recording demonstrative of Bekmambetov’s experimental spirit and the form’s malleability and still-untapped potential. Moments like these do enough to set Profile apart from its Screenlife relatives and offers a glimpse at a versatile future not far off (Bekmambetov has been adamant that any and all conceivable genres will be tackled), but in other ways, it reads very much like a product of the year in which it made its festival debut (conversely R#J feels ahead of its time, and hopefully it will receive distribution before that’s no longer true!).