Berlin Hidden Gem: 'Profile' Offers a Fresh Take on Digital Deception

'Profile' still
Valene Kane plays a journalist who creates a fake social media profile to communicate with a jihadi.

An unconventional drama about a woman pretending to be a radicalized Muslim, Timur Bekmambetov's film plays out entirely on computer screens.

Like so many lightbulb moments, the inspiration for what director Timur Bekmambetov calls "Screenlife" — an innovative cinematic language, in which a film’s action unfolds entirely within the frame of a computer screen — came about by accident.

“I was Skyping with my producer partner, and she shared her screen with me but forgot to turn it off,” he tells THR. “So we continued the conversation and suddenly I saw her screen life — she’s talking to me but booking tickets to the cinema, checking in with her friend. I felt like I was literally inside her — seeing every idea she had and every emotion she had.”

This initial creative spark eventually led to 2015’s Unfriended, a horror story told almost exclusively on a MacBook, followed by Search — which bowed at this year’s Sundance and was nabbed by Screen Gems — a detective thriller that pulled smartphone screens into the digital mix. One of Russia’s most commercially successful filmmakers, Bekmambetov produced both Unfriended and Search via his Bazelevs banner, but for Profile — which is premiering in Berlin — he returned to directing.

Based on the book In the Skin of a Jihadist by French journalist Anna Erelle, Profile follows a British investigative reporter (Valene Kane) who creates a fake Facebook profile of a radicalized Muslim convert to examine the online recruitment techniques used by ISIS to successfully lure thousands of European women into Syria as jihadi brides. With the story playing out on social media and Skype, Bekmambetov saw the perfect opportunity to try his technology on a new genre. “I’m constantly looking for these kind of stories, where the events and the emotion and people’s journeys happen onscreen, and this was perfect,” he says. “And it couldn’t be more different from Unfriended — it’s reality and addressing the issues of today’s world. I really believe in this language; it’s not gimmicky.”

As for the shooting process for Screenlife films, Bekmambetov says it’s been a major IT project. “We had to invent our own tools — there are no cameras, no lights, no traditional filmmakers elements,” he says. For Profile he built sets, "the desktop, the files, the applications," instead
of screens. “You have the same traditional storytelling rules, but with the filmmaking, there are no rules — it’s very exciting.”

Given the lack of studio space or physical elements needed, the filmmaker admits his creations are rather good for the all-important bottom line (Unfriended was made for just $1 million, yet hauled in more than $64 million at the box office).

“And we’re using young filmmakers and young actors — it’s like a lab,” he says. ”But I’m sure in a few years the budgets will be the same as blockbusters!”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 18 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.