Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Profile: Based on In the Skin of a Jihadist

Her name is not Anna Erelle, but she used that pseudonym to write In the Skin of a Jihadist and her original magazine piece exposing the techniques Daesh employs to lure misguided teens into sex slavery. Her name is not Amy Whittaker either, but that is what the British character based on her is known as in Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile, which opens in theaters this Friday.

Financially, Whittaker needs this assignment researching the ISIS process for grooming and trafficking young, gullible European-born women, so she pursues it aggressively. Posing as a much younger disaffected Muslim convert, she creates a social media profile and starts liking jihadi videos. Suddenly, she is contacted by Bilel, an ISIS military commander in Syria. He is clearly out to ensnare her, but he does indeed have a seducer’s charm.

Unlike Erelle, who always considered the real-life Bilel a cruel “braggart,” Whittaker starts to identify with her online predator, enjoying his cooking lessons and weird attempts at romance. However, things start to get real when he escalates, all of which unfolds solely across the screen of Whittaker’s laptop, via skype, Facetime, Google, and social media, just like Aneesh Chaganty’s
Searching, which Bekmambetov also produced, with his patented “Screentime” techniques.

In some ways,
Profile does a disservice to Erelle, who is still under constant police protection. At times, Valene Kane’s portrayal makes her appear like a star-struck teenager, whereas media accounts of Erelle suggest she was always clear-sighted and cognizant of the risks, yet she was always determined to tell the story.

covers some timely and unsettling subject matter, but Searching (it was just called Search when we reviewed it at Sundance) was much more compelling as a work of cinema. It is impossible to overstate the importance of John Cho’s convincing everyman desperation in driving Chaganty’s film. In contrast, Kane’s Whittaker lacks a comparable seriousness and intensity.

On the other hand, Shazad Latif is charismatically sinister, in a way that really makes the whole film credible. It is a big performance, even though it is often confined to small screens. Amir Rahimzadeh also notably helps humanize the film as Lou Karim, Whittaker’s tech support and occasional translator and Christine Adams adds some energizing flair as her hard-charging editor, Vick.

While rendered in windows-within-windows, Bekmambetov’s design and effects teams still did an impressive job recreating the Syrian war and the ravages Daesh left in its wake. The film looks realistic and its themes are very definitely grounded in reality. ISIS is not a welfare agency or a dating service. It is an extreme terrorist organization that seeks to subjugate women and all those who disagree with it. That comes through during
Profile, despite Whittaker’s questionable judgement. Recommended more for the issues it raises than its no-longer-so-novel approach, Profile releases this Friday (5/14) in theaters.