Review: ‘Profile’ (2021), starring Valene Kane and Shazad Latif

May 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Valene Kane in “Profile” (Photo courtesy of Bazelevs and Focus Features)

“Profile” (2021)

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Some language in Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in London and in Syria, in 2014, the dramatic film “Profile” features a cast of white and Middle Eastern characters (with one black person) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A British journalist creates an online persona for a news exposé on how jihadist terrorists in Syria recruit young Western women to become members of their ISIS militant groups, and the journalist gets emotionally involved with the man who is the focus of her investigation. 

Culture Audience: “Profile” will appeal primarily to people interested in a story that intersects between investigative journalism and online seduction.

Valene Kane and Shazad Latif in “Profile” (Photo courtesy of Bazelevs and Focus Features)

Years ago, NBC’s news investigation series “Dateline” had a segment called “To Catch a Predator,” which was about arresting sexual predators who use the Internet to target children. The suspenseful dramatic film “Profile” could have been subtitled “To Catch a Terrorist Predator,” since the movie depicts an investigation into how male ISIS terrorists in Syria lure Western teenage girls and young women into doing their bidding. The story in “Profile,” directed by Timur Bekmambetov, takes place over several weeks in 2014. And it’s a mostly well-paced thriller that’s not just about the investigation but it’s also about the dangers of creating a fake online persona and letting it take over your real life.

The “Profile” screenplay was written by Timur Bekmambetov, Britt Poulton and Olga Kharina. It probably helped to have women as two-thirds of this movie’s screenwriting team, since the protagonist in “Profile” is a female journalist who has to be written and portrayed as believable, in order for viewers to understand some of the decisions that she makes. “Profile” is based on the non-fiction book “In the Skin of a Jihadist” by a French journalist with the alias Anna Erelle, who has 24-hour security protection because of what she uncovered during her investigation.

In “Profile,” London-based freelance journalist Amy Whittaker (played by Valene Kane) has gotten an investigative assignment that she’s pitched to an unnamed TV network. Amy wants to find out how hundreds of young Western women and girls (some as young as 12 to 14 years old), who were usually raised as Christians, have radically changed their lives to convert to Islam, move to Syria, and live as extreme jihadists for ISIS. In order to expose the grooming process, Amy has decided that she will create a fake online profile and pretend to be a young woman who will be “bait” for one of the male jihadists.

At the beginning of the story, Amy is under a lot of stress because she’s overdue on her rent, and her assignment editor Vick (played by Christine Adams) is pressuring Amy to wrap up the investigation so that the TV network can have the story by the expected deadline. Amy creates a fake online persona named Melody Nelson, with her profile avatar as Snow White wearing a hijab and holding a lollipop. In real life, Amy is in her 30s, but she decides that her alter ego Melody will be 19 years old. Amy was originally going to make Melody 25 years old, but her research found that the terrorists prefer to lure teenage girls into their jihadist lifestyles.

Soon after Amy “likes” a jihadist ideology video that’s posted on social media, she is contacted by a terrorist in Syria named Abu Bilel Al-Britani (played by Shazad Latif), who likes to be called Bilel. And their “courtship” begins. Bilel, who is in his late 20s or early 30s, was born and raised in London, but he grew to hate the United Kingdom and other Western countries. As an adult, he moved to Syria, where he has become a middle-ranking leader of a group of terrorists.

Bilel (whose online avatar is a snarling lion) is charming and overly flattering with Melody. Amy portrays Melody as a vulnerable and lonely orphaned teenager in East London who has converted to Islam because she became disillusioned with Christian beliefs. As Melody, Amy pretends to be in awe of Bilel and comes across as someone who enthusiastically shares his beliefs that his ISIS activities are for a good cause. When she asks Bilel what his job is, he doesn’t hesitate to proudly tell her: “Killing people.”

Amy is somewhat caught off-guard when Bilel immediately begins trying to sell Melody on the idea that her life is an overpriced rut in England and that she’s better off being in Syria, where he says that she will be treated like a queen. Soon after they start messaging each other online, Bilel tells Melody that Syria is a great place to live. And he doesn’t waste time in insisting that they take their conversations to video chats on Skype.

And so, there’s an extended sequence of Amy quickly getting a crash course on how to give the appearance of being the perfect naïve target for an ISIS predator. Amy uses YouTube for makeup tutorials to apply makeup that will make her look younger and for instructions on strict Muslim traditions, such as wearing a jihab and gender rules. She also goes on YouTube and other social media to see first-hand accounts of teenage girls in the United States and Europe who were seduced into moving to the Middle East to become wives and concubines of jihadist terrorists and ended up becoming sex slaves.

One teenager’s story particularly touches Amy: Taylor Conger (played by Eloise Thomas) was a 14-year-old British loner who chronicled her life on YouTube. At some point, Taylor decided to upend her life, moved to Syria, and became an ISIS militant and the wife of a jihadist. What happens to Taylor is detailed later in the movie. As part of Amy’s research from social media videos that were made by radicalized Western teens, Melody uses some of the same words in her conversations with Bilel to explain why she’s seeking a big change in her isolated and depressing life.

During this investigation, Amy has been making plans to move in with her boyfriend Matt (played by Morgan Watkins), who’s aware that Amy is investigating an ISIS terrorist by creating a fake online persona. Matt finds a place that he likes and shows it to Amy during a video chat, but Amy prefers another home that they found because it has a garden for her dog Sparky. They eventually settle on the place that’s Amy’s first choice.

Amy also has an energetic and somewhat nosy friend named Kathy Pallary (played by Emma Cater), who is always trying to get homebody Amy to do things like go shopping with her or have dinner with her. Amy has confided in Kathy about her investigation. And you know that that means: Kathy wants to eventually see what Amy has uncovered.

The TV network has offered information technology (IT) assistance to Amy in her investigation. And so, an IT employee named Lou Kabir (played by Amir Rahimzadeh), who works for the TV network, is introduced to Amy through Skype. He coaches her on how to navigate the fake online accounts she’s created so that she can simultaneously use her real online accounts, in case she needs to switch back and forth with ease.

During Lou’s first online meeting with Amy, he mentions offhand that his mother is from Syria. After their conversation, Amy expresses concerns to Vick about Lou’s ethnicity and wonders out loud if Lou might tell his mother about the investigation and what might happen if Lou’s mother knows a terrorist. Vick, who says that Lou’s mother has lived in England for decades, admonishes Amy for being paranoid and racist. And it actually is very hypocritical for Amy to think this way, because she’s the one who’s been indiscreet about the investigation, having already told Matt and Kathy about it.

When Melody and Bilel meet each other for the first time, Amy has to pretend to be someone who’s attracted enough to Bilel to easily fall in love with him. She acts shy, deferential and coquettish. She tells Bilel that she’s 19. And when he asks her if she’s a virgin, she says yes. Amy secretly video records the Skype conversations that she has with Bilel.

The rest of the movie is a psychological back-and-forth over who’s really doing the more successful con game: the terrorist or the journalist? Because most of the movie consists of Skype conversations and messaging on social media, “Profile” keeps a lot of the suspense going with plot contrivances, such as Matt and Kathy unknowingly interrupting Amy when she’s on Skype chats with Bilel. Amy usually has to ignore their messages when she’s with Bilel. And eventually, Amy gets so caught up in the investigation that it starts to take a toll on her relationship with Matt.

Meanwhile, Vick’s patience starts to wear thin, as Amy keeps delaying the end of the investigation because Amy thinks she can find information that can not only expose the Bilel’s recruitment tactics but also find a way that he can be captured. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch for Amy to suddenly start thinking that she can be like an MI6 operative, but a lot of investigative journalists can develop grandiose and ambitious goals when they get very caught up in their investigations.

Bilel initially comes across as very confident and assertive, but he eventually shows a vulnerable side to Melody when he opens up to her about his troubled family history. It’s a turning point in their relationship, because it triggers Amy to reveal to Bilel that she has her own struggles with a family tragedy that still haunts her. Telling Bilel her big family secret is a crack in her façade, because viewers will get the impression that although Amy told this story as Melody, the story is really what happened to Amy.

Viewers will have to suspend some disbelief in a few areas of the movie. For example, Bilel is paranoid about being exposed by journalists and government spies. And yet, he’s all over social media bragging about his misdeeds, without any attempts to hide his face and disguise his voice. Bilel also never does a Google search on any photos of Melody. Because if he did, he would find out that she looks exactly like a London journalist named Amy Whittaker who’s on social media.

However, Bilel isn’t a complete fool. Amy never really looks as young as 19, and Bilel is suspicious of how old Melody really is. Eventually, he confronts Melody and demands that she tell him what her real age is. Amy has to decide if she’s going to stick with the lie or confess something that’s more believable.

Amy’s undercover work starts to spill over into her real life. When she sees a report that ISIS terrorists have co-opted the hand gesture of pointing an index finger upright (the way some people indicate the number one), Amy gets paranoid when she sees a social media photo of Kathy making the same gesture. For a brief moment, Amy wonders if Kathy is a secret terrorist until Kathy explains that she made the gesture as that it was one more day until her celebration of the upcoming holiday season.

Amy also starts to blur the lines between her professional and personal lives when she takes her investigation beyond what she’s supposed to do. During a video chat, Bilel confided in Melody about how one of his favorite childhood memories was going to a London sweetshop owned by a fellow Syrian. Bilel tells her that it’s one of his few happy memories of London.

One day, Amy (disguised as Melody) surprises Bilel by doing their next Skype chat from that same London sweetshop. She gives a video tour of the shop so that it can bring back some happy memories for him. Although this might seem like a shrewd gesture to further endear herself to Bilel, it’s actually a very risky thing to do because no one should be seeing Amy out in public in her undercover disguise. What if someone who knew Amy walked into that shop and recognized her? (Stranger things have happened.) Her cover would be blown.

It’s during this video chat that something major happens in the story that reveals that Amy hasn’t been able to keep an emotional distance from Bilel during this investigation. The result of this video chat also brings up journalistic ethical dilemmas that can happen when journalists work undercover and encounter things that they did not expect. Amy does indeed go down a proverbial “rabbit hole” in her obsession to get a bigger story, but what will it cost her?

The believable performances of Kane and Latif make “Profile” a watchable film overall. Where the movie falters a bit is during the middle part of the story, which drags a little with some cutesy courtship footage, such as Bilel and Melody cooking curry during one of their Skype chats. And there are many instances during their Skype chats when someone in Amy’s real life interrupts and she has to abruptly disconnect from her call with Bilel. Bilel doesn’t get suspicious though (even though he should) because Amy (as Melody) always comes up with an excuse that he automatically believes.

In “Profile,” the terror of living in war-torn Syria is often a backdrop and not at the forefront—and deliberately so, because Bilel wants to paint a rosy picture of Syria, in order to lure Melody there. A bomb might go off while Bilel is outside, but if it does, he will quickly disconnect from the call. Likewise, he doesn’t show Melody any part of his murderous acts and other violence that he commits as a terrorist.

It’s an example of how people who create fake personas online only show what they want to show. If viewers are willing to tolerate seeing a movie about catching a terrorist that involves a lot of footage of computer screens, then “Profile” should hold people’s interest with this intriguing story. Beyond what’s on the computer screens, the movie skillfully offers a metaphorical blank canvas where viewers can project their opinions on how they feel about investigative journalism, online relationshps and tactics used to fight terrorism.

Focus Features released “Profile” in U.S. cinemas on May 14, 2021.

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