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An eye-opening account of how ISIS systematically brainwashes teenage girls and women into submission

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  • Release Date: 14/05/2021
  • Cast: Valene Kane, Morgan Watkins, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams
  • Director: Timur Bekmambetov
  • Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

“Profile” is based on the book, “In the Skin of a Jihadist” by Anna Erelle. Erelle is a French journalist who was working on an assignment to uncover the recruitment process of ISIS and how the terrorist outfit was able to convince impressionable teenagers and women from European countries to abandon their homes, family, and country to travel thousands of miles to Syria and become ISIS brides. Erelle took up the fictional identity of Melodie, a 20-year-old who had recently converted to Islam and frequented forums and groups online that were known to have visitations from ISIS recruiters. She was soon contacted by Bilel, a narcissistic youth (in her own words) who tried to sweep her off her feet and charm her into traveling to Syria. What happens next forms the crux of the book.

Timur Bekmambetov is known for directing action films like Day Watch, Night Watch, and Wanted. He helms the cinematic rendition of the book with complete authority and conviction. He makes certain changes to the story like making the protagonist a British citizen and changing her name to Amy. The core idea and screenplay of the film remains deeply rooted in the ethos and essence of the book and its many intricacies. Reading through a brief extract of the book, I could find many direct references to dialogues in the film. Thus it will be safe to say that the film follows the book closely.

“Profile” is a masterclass in manipulation. It is so both in terms of Bekmambetov’s astute filmmaking and also how the terrorist elements of the story influence teenagers and women using either their confusion or appealing to their vanity to get close to them and become inseparable parts of their existence. The film is so effective in its storytelling that I was glued to it from start to finish. The entire film unfolds on a computer screen. Whatever we see unfolds through recorded Skype sessions, Skype calls, or the social media activities of the protagonist on different apps. Bekmambetov is successful in presenting all this in such a coherent and easily intelligible manner that anyone who has even the faintest understanding of how social media works will be able to successfully put together the different aspects of the story and understand every beat of it. The director uses elements specific to this kind of storytelling to infuse tension, dread, emotional rumblings, and even a sense of thrill and horror in the latter half of the film.

A Still from the film

What I loved most about the rendition was how wonderfully Bekmambetov was able to use the specific way of storytelling to give the audiences a voyeuristic vantage point of knowing things that the characters in the film were not aware of and yet was able to surprise the same audience with how some of the events and emotional outbursts turned out in the story. This quality of the film gets more and more pronounced as we move along in the narrative. The amount of character development that we see for the protagonist, Amy (Valene Kane) was sensational considering the fact that we see her through a computer window throughout the entire runtime of the film.

She starts off as someone desperate for the story because her financial independence depended on it. She is also extremely nervous about chatting with Bilel as she is horrified by the risks involved. She even doubts a colleague who reveals that he has a Syrian connection and she is on the verge of backing out but decides to go ahead when she is exposed to a story of a teenager who had recently travelled to Syria and was later stoned to death when she tried to come back to her country.

With every conversation, we see Amy get more and more confident and in the skin of the character of Melody that she was portraying for Bilel. In addition to her conversations with Bilel, she is forced to juggle between a caring but realistic boyfriend who wants them to move into the same house, her piling dues, a boss who is unrelenting and professional, and her own torrid past that includes a mother who died because she couldn’t keep up with her dues and was crushed under the mounting weight that her piling dues brought with it. Amy never realizes that between all this, she is unknowingly giving Bilel access to her true self — the tormented and lonely soul that she truly was and was beginning to revel in the lavish praises and lofty promises that he made to her of a future that she could only dream of.

Amy never realizes that when she is sending her pictures to her boyfriend and not getting the kind of response that she was expecting but at the same time is being pampered without of the world “mush” by Bilel, she is actually falling for his trap subconsciously. She never realizes that she was not just following the story anymore but craved for the treatment and feeling of otherworldly romance that Bilel brought to her otherwise mundane, cut-throat, and strictly average life. While she constantly refers to Bilel as nothing more than a means to an end and a window into the ISIS, Bekmambetov documents through multiple sequences how much Bilel has started impacting her life and how much she actually cares for him. This portion of the story was masterfully executed and even better acted by Valene Kane.

A Still from the film

Shazad Latif as Bilel is a screen stealer. I just loved how Latif envisioned and rendered the character. I am confident that he must have gone through the recordings of Anna Erelle but it is apparent that he has done enough work on his part to live the character before he could draw such a convincing picture of a terrorist who was not only charming but also convincing. He was onto Melodie right from the beginning but that is something that the viewers will learn only at the end of the film. The façade that he maintains throughout the film led to the biggest surprise and shock for the audiences in the end.

The way Bilel behaves with Melodie during their calls was uncanny and how it all ends makes these scenes even more sensational. There was a brief period towards the end of the film where the audience’s are led to believe that he might not be so bad after all. Expectations are subverted and this leads into a climax that was absolutely heartbreaking. Suffice is to say that without Shazad Latif’s realistic and believable rendering of Bilel, this film wouldn’t be what it ended up being.

There are a few issues with the film but it gets so much and so many things right that I feel it would be best if I ignored those flaws. There is much to learn from Profile. The film is a scathing commentary not so much on terrorism and religion but on loneliness, grief, misery, and pressure and how that can perpetually drive an individual into making some of the worst decisions in life. People like Bilel feed on the failures of society and the broken support system that individuals constantly try to lay back on as they are growing up and trying to find their footing in a world that is changing faster than they can cope with.

Families, friends, love, and sometimes even a small token of love or word of appreciation can prove to be the best vaccination against the rabid disease of alienation and all that is waiting to pounce on the individuals who are brought down by it. Would Amy do what she is shown doing if all was good in her life?

This was a bigger question for me in the film than what Bilel was shown doing and how successfully he and many others like him were able to replicate these actions and condemn young girls and women for life. Anna Erelle must have been honest about her feelings when she documented them in her book and this honesty was absolutely critical in humanizing the protagonist and showing the viewers the possible cracks in the fabric of the society and all that was wrong in the modern families and relationships. The film asks you to retrospect and retrospect you must.

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