Cinema constantly reinvents itself and finds new avenues of artistic expression. It’s in flux. Sometimes propelled by form-challenging visionaries and trend-setters like Godard (and you should check out an outstanding feature defending JLG’s work written by my good buddy Nicolò Grasso for more insight), other times prodded by technological advancements. Sometimes by both…
The French New Wave pioneers together with their counterparts in other parts of the world have blazed the trail of rebellious democratization of the art form, took the cameras off their tripods, shot on location without permits, merged documentary and fiction and played fast-and-loose with chronology and the crystalline playbook of filmmaking, partly because technology allowed it. It was no longer prohibitively expensive to acquire a 16mm camera and some film stock. Cinema breached the fortifications set about by the big industry players. Arguably, this process has never stopped because technological advancements have not ceased either. Cameras have become more affordable and smaller and before we knew it, everyone could make movies. And everybody did. Homemade movies became cinema and the most recognizable incarnation of this trend was the nascent of the ‘found footage’ genre, initially observed in horror (The Blair Witch Project) and eventually everywhere else.
This unyielding march of technological progression did not stop there and as our social interactions moved more decisively into the online realm, cinema followed suit. Naturally, there’s more in here to dig into because the world of filmmaking has come to draw inspiration from all facets of the online experience (from borrowing video game aesthetic to embracing social media as a narrative tool, to name a few examples), but the ground zero was found again in the dominion of horror with a movie called The Collingswood Story, a little indie curiosity that barely anybody remembers, and which nonetheless has become a herald of a new trend, weirdly enough dominated by filmmakers of Russian origin.
It is frankly undeniable that at this point in time the idea of a ‘computer screen film’ has grown to become a genre unto its own with such examples as Unfriended (and its sequel), Searching or Host, the latter of which has also tapped into the malaise of the Coronavirus pandemic which saw many millions of people forcibly move their entire operations online. Therefore, this experimental gimmick has now been validated culturally. Everyone uses Zoom daily. Consequently, because cinema is a mirror reflecting (and warping) reality, it is expected of it to reflect this facet of our existence as well.
However, it also seems that the subgenre of a computer screen movie, be it a horror or not, suffers from a case of youthful rebellious ignorance as it is hellbent on ignoring more than a century of preceding knowledge of storytelling and gleefully tries to blaze its own trail. What it does not know is that in doing so it makes itself looks naïve and infantile because what it tries to tame is not an unkempt jungle but a well developed park with already pre-existing paths, ponds and benches. And Profile is the best example of that.
Adapted from a non-fiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist and directed by Timur Bekmambetov (whom fantasy nerds should associate with his adaptations of Night Watch and Day Watch, but who has also been bankrolling a good chunk of computer screen movies as well), Profile tells a story of a journalist Amy (Valene Kane) who poses as a young Muslim convert to attract attention of ISIS recruiters and develop a story about the ins and outs of the way young women end up bamboozled into leaving their homes and becoming veritable slaves at the mercy of brutal jihadists. However, as she delves deeper into her fake character, she comes dangerously close to falling for the recruiter she wants to manipulate (Shazad Latif) and perhaps forgets which way is up.
Now, I don’t even want to entertain the idea of seeing this movie as operating with broad stereotypes in portraying Muslims and their culture, which seems to be a popular approach to take while reviewing it, because at least the main gist of the story is rooted in fundamental reality. An actual journalist posed as an actual convert and tried to manipulate an actual jihadist so it’s not my place to interrogate the veracity of the detail embedded in the narrative. What I can and will comment on, however, is how this story is told using the gimmick (or genre) the filmmakers chose to convey the story with, which – as it turns out – might not be the best vehicle to do so.
Profile is not the first ‘computer screen movie’ to break away from horror, as Searching (also produced by Bekmambetov) together with Face 2 Face and probably a few others I don’t know about did it before. What becomes immediately interesting to the viewer is how the traditional storytelling toolbox known from ‘regular’ movies would be warped or re-engineered to fit the artificial constraints of a film told exclusively from the perspective of a computer screen. While some of that toolbox has evolved naturally from the subgenre of found footage, a lot of the cinematic language must be invented anew to accommodate the fact the story doesn’t progress unless the computer is on and that everything the characters do has to be funnelled through it as well, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be the best way to do it.
Let’s be honest, there really isn’t much we can do about it and some disbelief must be suspended if we are to have a fighting chance at enjoying the movie. This is pretty much an extension of a similar problem marring the found footage genre because the viewer has to believe there is a reason someone would continually keep the camera on at all times, even when all hell breaks loose. In the realm of horror such as Host or Unfriended it is inherently easier to achieve because as subsequent fabrics of reality are peeled off and the viewer is dragged into the universe of the film where demons and ghosts not only exist but make it their mission to mess with the characters, it might not take much for anyone to temporarily forget about rudimentary logic and simply buy into the fantasy.
This is much harder to achieve when we step away from supernatural horror. Granted, Searching thrived on its suspenseful murder mystery and it was enough to keep the viewer aboard. In fact, it was enough for many viewers to overlook the abundance of Easter eggs left by the filmmakers, which suggested that while John Cho was looking for his daughter, the world was undergoing an alien invasion. Profile is a wholly different experience as it is at its core a psychological thriller that tries to capture a woman’s slow descent into a manipulated relationship with a dangerously charming individual. Its intrigue is entirely character-driven and – unfortunately – it is laden with laughable clichés, the pinnacle of which involves the main character immediately putting on “Where Is My Mind” by The Pixies after realizing she might be losing her mind!
Honestly, it’s very hard to like Profile because despite trying its darndest to endear the viewer with the tactile allure of its narrative template, it constantly and incessantly undermines itself at every opportunity. It’s totally OK for characters to make stupid mistakes when the viewer is onboard, latched securely to their shoulders, but it is rendered impossible by the simple fact that every instance of the story getting close to having the viewer lose themselves in the world of the film, the computer screen template draws attention to itself, thus breaking the cinematic illusion. This is a cardinal sin that filmmakers in the early 20th century have figured out how to avoid by developing their editing acumen. However, it would seem that the champions of this budding genre are very keen to disregard a lot of the advancements in storytelling, perhaps because they feel they have to rejig them so much that they might as well invent everything from scratch, which is simply put a grave mistake. Stories are stories. Characters are characters. Arcs are arcs. Dramatic beats are still what they are. And choosing clichés simply because they have not been deployed yet in this new manifold is foolish at best. Audiences have seen movies before and expect the filmmakers to sharpen their game.
Therefore, Profile is overall a disappointing experience despite the fact it is still part of the trailblazing first wave of films in this relatively new trend. It undercuts its own potency at every opportunity, fails to care to preserve even an illusion of a logical story progression, paints itself into a corner every ten minutes and telegraphs its most intricate character beats with nothing short of the most ham-fisted clichés available, as though it was some kind of a challenge. In a nutshell, Profile is not a good movie. If I were to forget for a minute that other films exist, it would probably make a formidable counterpart to an early silent genre film, but I cannot do that. These movies exist and we cannot pretend otherwise. This is not a whole new medium but an interesting wrinkle on an already existing legacy. And it’s quite simply disrespectful to pretend that movies like this one do not stand on the shoulders of giants, because they do.