Profile is the next instalment in what producer and director Timur Bekmambetov has described as the screenlife genre – a series of releases that play out in their entirety on laptop and SmartPhone screens. Where Unfriended was a horror film, and Searching was a investigative procedural, Profile is more akin to a psychological thriller, following English journalist Amy Whittaker (Valerie Kane) as she poses as an ISIS convert in order to build a rapport with Bilel (Shazad Latif), an ISIS recruiter operating out of Syria. The setup is considerably more constrained and austere than Searching, and mainly takes place on Amy’s laptop, as she Skypes with Bilel in an effort to expose the recruitment channels luring young English women to Syria. Theree are also far fewer visual tricks than in either Searching or Unfriended, with most of the action focusing on the mindsets of Amy and Bilel, their burgeoning rapport, and the way all of that plays out through and against social media.
One of the great twists of the film is how easy it is for Amy to make contact with Bilel in the first place, since all it involves is joining an ISIS Facebook group, and leaving key indicators on her Facebook profile (a false profile) to make her attractive to the group. From the outset, this online jihadist community is presented in a fairly matter-of-fact, domesticated way, sharing babies and cute pictures of cats alongside ISIS insignia. Much of the recruitment process plays out like standard online flirtation, replete with a familiar set of predetermined roles and moves, as Bilel courts Amy by sharing emojis, memes and gifs, while asking her for more profile pictures whenever possible. In the process, Bekmambetov captures how integral the spectacle of Islamic extremism is to the daily ebb and flow of the internet in the western world, where barely a news cycle passes by without some fear piece about the Middle East making its way to the top of the page, or being posed for discussion.
By capturing the way the West domesticates the Middle East on social media, Profile also captures those aspects of the Middle East that resist Western media, as well as the broader role that radical Islam plays in the Western consciousness. The most important part of Amy’s job is to convince Bilel that she is a genuine convert, and that her conversion is not merely to Islam, but to the radical mode of Islam that he espouses. Her research emphasises how much of the Western fixation with Islam stems from the spectacle of converts, as she trawls through one convert testimony or news story after another, until they seem to constitute the bulk of the internet as she experiences it. The privileged moment of conversion, she realises, is the moment at which the convert puts on the full hijab, but this moment can also only be convincing if it is preceded by a certain deference towards the recruiter who is testifying to and facilitating that conversion. In the case of Bilel, she is advised, she needs to make sure that she exhibits interest and enthusiasm, but never makes sudden or direct eye contact, and never takes off her partial hijab while she is talking to him.
Throughout this process, putting on the full hijab, and completing the conversion, is compared to entering the dark web – a space where the mediating power of Western society no longer ramifies. Before even talking to Bilel, Amy selects the incognito mode on Safari, the closest the regular user can come to a dark web experience. After talking to him, she is forced to create an alternative desktop “beneath” her regular desktop, so that she can send him screen shots, and he can monitor the way in which their Skype conversations are situated on her computer. Like the deep web, the full hijab suggests a presence that is capable of perceiving and mediating the West to the Middle East, but unwilling to mediate the Middle East back to the West in turn. In a world where Western media is so anxious to define what it means to be Islamic, radically Islamic, or simply Middle Eastern, the spectacle of the full hijab speaks to something intractable that won’t be seamlessly mediated in this way, just as the dark web testifies to the partial failure of the internet as an open mediation.
In that sense, ISIS media forms a a kind of limit to Western media, operating both as an injunction to mediate, but also as a defiant reminder that certain things simply can’t be mediated or understood by the West. Putting on the hijab thus takes Amy into a different kind of media space, one where her ability to disseminate information is radically compromised, and her sense of herself as a Western subject is quickly dismantled. As the film puts it, putting on the full hijab and accessing the dark web is one and the same, confronting Amy with the possibility that the digital world, as she understands it, is in fact mediating ideologies that are directly contradictory to her own. The point is made succinctly when Bilel congratulates her on the efficiency of her desktop by recalling one of his grandmother’s maxims: “the order on your table is the order in your head.” All of a sudden, Amy’s desktop, which was previously a surface for her personal thoughts and experiences, becomes a shared table top, a communal space that depends on her acting in accordance with radical Islamic gender norms, and participating in them before she is even aware of it.
No surprise, then, that the first time she meets Bilel she flatters him by discussing how good the internet is in Syria, since the point of the film is that the media of radical Islam is the real motor engine of the Western digital world – the inherently unmediated spectacle that Western media perpetually tries to contain and corral. Early in the film, when Amy is browsing through the ISIS Facebook group, she comes across a series of disturbing videos, which appear to celebrate and document executions of Westerners. Later, however, she discovers the real import of the videos, which in some ways is even more disturbing, since it turns out that these are satirical exercises, mock executions that start off serious, before the participants all spontaneously break into song, like a radical Islamic flash mob. Rather than simply depict the execution of Westerners, these videos play to the Western media’s need to provide a narrative for the Middle East, and then abruptly and comically undercut that narrative, suggesting a radical Islamic agenda that will always remain one step ahead of Western mediation, and a Western social media whose inadequacies are inherently comic.
As the film proceeds, that equation of radical Islam with the motor engine of Western media finds particular expression in and around the way that cats are used through Bekmambetov’s mise-en-scenes. When Bilel first introduces himself, he does so with a photograph of a cat, while one of his main side projects is his Instagram account, Islamic State of Cat, where he juxtaposes cute felines with political slogans and images. His Skype profile picture is also a cat – albeit a lion – and he communicates largely in cat gifs whenever chatting to Amy on Facebook. While Amy quickly discovers that cats are often used by ISIS recruiters to lure converts to Syria, this doesn’t seem to make much difference to Bilel’s growing appeal, since the cats he uses somehow always defy the sinister overtones of the material he mediates through them. In 2008, Ethan Zuckerman posited the cute cat theory of digital activism, which, in its strongest form, suggested that cat images, and images like cat images, were the most virulent site of media in digital culture. They proved, he argued, that a cute affective surface is capable of domesticating virtually any ideological message.
Throughout Profile, cute cats are continually used to lure Amy and other British women into Islamic extremism. Yet these women also become cute cats themselves, exuding a kind of defiant placidity that makes them seem every bit as receptive as cats, but also every bit as resistant to giving too much back to the user who is adoring them. While Islamic women are often presented as docile, or submissive, the film suggests that their power in the Western world comes from the way in which they present Islamic resistance to Western mediation at its most defiant. Like the full hijab, or the dark web, radical Islam, makes its presence felt in all kinds of ways in Western media, but only to clarify how ill-equipped Western media is to mediate it. It is that situation that makes Profile so eerie, since while Amy rarely moves from her living room, and the action rarely strays from her desktop, ISIS already appears to have infiltrated all her most domestic spaces, emerging as a space of figurative possibility in all those fissures and aporia where Western social media breaks down, glitches, or is disrupted.
For that reason, Bilel hardly seems like an extremist. In fact, he seems considerably more normal than Amy’s own boyfriend, Matt (Morgan Watkins), much as Amy’s online conversations with Bilel feel more natural than her few in-person interactions with Matt. In one of the more uncanny moments of the film, Bilel shows Amy around the house she will occupy in Syria, just as Matt has sent her images of a new apartment back in England. While the house in Syria is furnished in a more Middle Eastern style, it nevertheless feels homelier and even more English than the apartment back in England, just because it allows Amy to fully situate herself in, and domesticate, the social media sphere whose limitations and borders have become coterminous with this radical Islamic presence. So thoroughly has radical Islam become intertwined with the syntax of Western social media that it has effectively become Western social media, which is why Western social media is unable to fully mediate it, since this would be tantamount to mediating and containing itself. Time and again, the film seems restless to find a space “outside” social media in the manner of some of the earliest digital thrillers, while there’s a looming and inchoate sense that the very process of witnessing and engaging with social media is exposure to a radical Islamic gaze.
In that sense, the sobering message of Profile is that ISIS has already colonised England, and that the recruitment of young women is just an afterthought, or surplus pleasure. The more normcore Amy and Bilel become, the eerier the film becomes, especially in its final act, which resembles the denouement of a romantic comedy more than a psychological thriller. All of a sudden, the horizons of all the familiar stories spun around social media – both good and bad – turn out to have been about radical Islam all along, since radical Islam turns out to be the ultimate litmus test against which normality, and normal mediation, is measured in the Western media consciousness. Resisting Bilel is therefore no less impossible than resisting the libidinal attractions of social media itself, meaning that Amy can only remove herself from his grasp by “resetting” her desktop and social media presence time and time again, producing a climax in which she alternates so frequently between believing in Bilel and doubting Bilel, that it is indiscernible whether or not she will travel to Syria or remain in England. During one of the most convulsive of these moments she can only regain her critical distance by treating her own desktop as a desktop film, playing a piece of terrorist footage with the Pixies “Where Is My Mind?” as a soundtrack, but even that cinematic self-framing fades quickly, leaving her with the invidious task of relinquishing social media itself.
During these sequences, Bilel becomes more aggressive and mercenary as Amy grows closer to his grasp, but Bekmambetov somehow manages to make him seem even more benign at the same time – an embodiment of the most benign overtones of social media itself. The critical moment of conversion comes during his online wedding ceremony with Amy, when she is permitted to look him consistently in the face for the first time, but only as a precursor to putting on the full hijab forever. Gathering up enough of his gaze to performatively refuse to mediate its import to the world at large, she squares the circle between British domesticity and Islamic connectivity, producing a plethora of Facebook messages, congratulations and friend requests the moment she posts the wedding photograph, along with multiple offers of assistance in getting to Syria. Rather than having committed herself to an outlier experience, Amy now finds herself more connected than at any point in her life so far, producing a kind of intensified social media experience that is impossible to resist without sacrificing the sense of self that is being mediated to begin with.
In the end, it is only a glitch in the system that permits Amy to escape from Bilel – a conversation she watches between him and another recruiter with a translator present (something he hasn’t counted on), and then a burst of static that morphs and distorts his face into its “real” dimensions and intentions. Yet these glitches ultimately only provide a momentary reprieve, and a momentary recourse to a “reality” outside Islamic mediation, since these very glitches have been the parts of digital media that have been so thoroughly enmeshed with the spectre of Islam itself over the course of the film. Accordingly, when Amy betrays Bilel, he responds with a fatwa, which is here presented as a mode of mapping that outdoes even Google Maps and Street View, even as it uses them as tools, once Bilel has managed to figure out Amy’s exact location from the small details present in her apartment. As the film presents it, the fatwa operates as a kind of logical and terrifying conclusion to digital media, exceeding anything that Western media or legal structures can do to control it. And this final prospect, of an Islamic gaze that mediates everything but that can’t be mediated by the West, is the final note of the film, not just because an afterword informs us that this has all been based on a true story, but because of the framing device, which sees a cursor hover over each of the Skype videos that comprise the story, and then click on each successive video as the narrative unfolds in chronological sequence. In the beta version I saw, it was ambiguous who was handling this cursor “outside” the story, and hopefully that ambiguity will be intensified during the theatrical release, since it’s a perfect closing note for the film – a kind of desktop translation of the hijab, suggestive of a gaze that follows and directs the viewer, but whose own intentions remain defiantly unmediable.