As a Lebanese Christian who grew up in the American South, let me warn you: I am very fussy about anti-Arab and Islamophobic representations on screen. My helplessness at watching dated yet beloved stories like Die Hard, The Sopranos or The Wire drives me into a stuttering rage. I understand that they accurately represent how discriminatory practices really were in the early 2000s – believe me, I was in an eighth grade mass media class when the towers came down. I have been to gun ranges in my hometown where a target option is the outline of an Arab man in a head covering. I understand all too well that things were/are really like that. I understand, as well, that art imitates life, truly… but there comes a point when life imitates art, too, and I just can’t let that shit stand.
As a result, I have developed a quick checklist of Is-This-Racist for media that features Arabs, and I watched Timur Bekmambetov’s film Profile (in theaters this Friday) with that list in mind. Here’s the down-and-dirty list:
- Are the Arabs in this movie played by actual Arabs?
- Are there any Arabs who are not outright villains? If not, you’re just using “Arab” as a stand-in for “villain,” and that’s not only racist but ALSO lazy.
- Are there any Muslims who are not outright villains? See note above.
I should also disclaim here that there are spoilers for this film below. If you have not seen Profile, bookmark this page, watch the film (you’ll be glad you did!) and then come back.
Are the Arabs in this movie played by actual Arabs?
I am not asking whether they are played by olive-skinned people: are the actors actually of Middle Eastern descent? It might sound silly, but representation is important to me. It doesn’t have to be a 1-for-1 match (after all, they are acting), but it’s still important. Much as I love the Guatemala-born Oscar Isaac, he displeased me when he portrayed an Armenian refugee. I was heartbroken as a child when I discovered that The Mummy's Anck-su-Namun was played by Venezuelan bombshell Patricia Velásquez. And no, Jake Gyllenhaal, you are not The Prince of Persia.
Profile checks out. The starring role of Bilel is played by Shazad Latif, of British, Scottish and Pakistani ancestry. The supporting role of Lou is played by Amir Rahimzadeh, who was born in Iran but is British. Neither of them is Syrian, but I still definitely count this as a victory on the representation front.
Are there any Arabs who are not villains? Are there any Muslims who are not villains?
The film starts with Amy (Valene Kane), an up-and-coming journalist taking on a second article assignment about jihadists in Europe, in which she needs to record her calls. Lou, “the IT guy” at Amy’s newspaper (Rahimzadeh), is the character who satisfies numbers 2 and 3 on my easy checklist, and he does so for several reasons. The first reason is that he’s not The Bad Guy, but he’s also not The Good Guy or The Victim. Lou is not set up to be the hero… he’s just “the IT guy” who happens to be Arab, and I love that. That apparent coincidence demonstrates how life works, and depicting some Arabs as regular people is really valuable because it removes the coding of Arab to mean anything other than Arab.
The second reason that Lou satisfies the list is that he guides Amy not only through the technology, which is his actual job, but also the culture of Islam. It should be noted that Lou does not identify himself as Muslim, but he is familiar enough with the culture that he can easily point out any clues that would blow Amy’s cover. When Lou points out that “Tattoos are haram,” Amy asks, “Are you Muslim?” He replies, “My mother is Syrian.” (We’ll revisit that point soon.) He also tells her as she dons her hijab, “If at any point you feel like you can’t bear it any more, you can always finish [end] the call,” explaining that her safety and comfort are the priority. He texts her notes on her undercover performance during the call with the jihadist, Bilel (Latif), such as, “Don’t look him in the eye,” and “smile.” Lou comforts her and attempts to make Amy feel safe, despite Amy’s conflation/confusion of Islam with terrorism.
The thing is, Bekmambetov and co-writers Britt Poulton and Olga Kharina know the filmgoer’s expectations of a character like Lou. Viewers are so used to seeing Arab as code for “evil” that I myself muttered aloud, “So, something’s gone be up with Lou.” What happens next is so smart. The film inverts the preconceptions that other films have imposed by having Amy jump to the conclusion that a less-adept film would take: she messages her boss, “did you know lous mom is syrian???????” [sic] Vick (Christine Adams) does her best to assuage Amy’s fears in the most typical way, by saying Lou’s mother has lived here for 30 years, and Lou was “born here.” Though Vick says that Amy “sounds racist right now,” she clearly must have had the same reservations initially in order to first anticipate that Amy would ask that question and furthermore to know how to answer it.
It’s a baffling moment when I anticipate someone’s racism and am immediately vindicated… it’s one of the few moments when I hate to be right. The creators of this film are so attuned to the free associations that viewers’ minds seem to make of Arabs that they address it and dispel it in less than sixty seconds of screen time. That’s smart, y’all.
The line that Amy delivers next is perhaps my favorite (albeit a controversial) moment of the film. Amy retorts, lighting her cigarette, “You know who else was born here? The fucking terrorist I’m about to speak to.” Though Amy says later that she does know how politically incorrect she sounds, she continues, “I’m under a lot of pressure… and I want to feel safe.” That line reads like she knows what her mind is doing, that she’s been conditioned to conflate Arab with terrorist, that she knows doing so is wrong and bad, but her mind is doing it regardless of what her logic tells her, and she’s trying to actively dispel it. We see her soon after with Lou again, as he coaches her how to talk to this evil jihadist (who is, in fact, actually evil), and then, Amy is totally calm, listening to his advice.
That short stint of dialogue does so much: it not only strikes through our assumption that Arab is code for “evil,” not only propels the story into the main conflict by giving Amy the tiniest bit of intel, but it also course-corrects the viewer. The subtext of the line, “You know who else was born here?” is that where someone is born does not determine their identity. That's the thesis of Profile, the main objective of its storytelling.
Though Amy seems unable to do so, the film itself draws a very clear line between Islam and terrorism, displaying the jihadist, Bilel, for the cult member and recruiter that he is. In fact, the film seems to say more about the nature of cults and how they recruit and indoctrinate as a whole than it does about jihadists specifically. Throughout the film, Amy references the “Al Qaeda Handbook,” even though the cinematography suggests that the research we see her do onscreen is all the research she actually has done… and I’m skeptical of the existence of a straight-up handbook that one could Google, anyway. Early in the film when Amy takes on the assignment, and she prepares to go undercover, Vick asks her, “Any idea how you’re going to play a young Muslim girl?” If your boss is asking you that, you are not prepared. No one has trained you. Amy is vastly ill-equipped to go undercover as a potential victim, and her lack of training positions her as an actual potential victim. She is young(ish), stressed from money and work, and her support system is failing her.
To put it frankly: Amy is the ideal recruit for any cult, and Bilel is the cult’s charismatic leader. In this case, the charismatic leader is also a terrorist cell that hides behind the façade of Islam… but in reality is a religious sect founded on violence. We could even go so far as to call it a suicide cult.
Amy’s desperation to see how the cult of jihadists in particular works makes her act against her instinct until her emotions and motivations are confused. This confusion is especially inherent when Bilel takes her on as an emotional hostage, manipulating her as a charismatic leader manipulates his recruits. He shares some private trauma of his life with the intention of manipulating Amy because she is now privy to the information. She falls into his trap immediately, sending many consoling and commiserating follow-up messages to Bilel in attempt to connect. Initially, she pushes aside her personal responsibilities for the sake of the story, and gradually, her undercover self merges with her true self until she takes a horrible misstep. The all-too-obvious metaphor: she “marries” Bilel on her real Facebook by accident.
That mistake exposes the depth of her trance to Amy’s boyfriend who promptly dumps her, but it also exposes her identity to Bilel, the one who is reeling her in. Her fear of Bilel recalls the remorseful phone call of her first article’s subject, Taylor. The film plays a recording of Taylor in Syria saying she had "made a huge mistake” in coming. Taylor’s confession leaks online, and she is stoned to death before she can return to her home country. After her mistake, Amy returns to Lou, whom she has literally cut out of the Skype calls as her relationship with Bilel intensifies. True to his established form, Lou translates for her from Arabic the crucial, disillusioning piece of dialogue in which Bilel discusses with his contact how much money Amy is worth. Then Lou asks, “Hey, what’s this about?” which further confirms his innocuousness and willingness to help her.
The film culminates in Bilel threatening a fatwa against Amy if she publishes the story that exposes him. It’s a call to action for all jihadists everywhere to murder Amy on sight, and he identifies her easily with facts she’s inadvertently shared with him. Amy takes this as a real betrayal because she has developed very sincere emotions for him. We witness those emotions as she weeps in public at seeing what she thought was Bilel’s violent murder; after she has traveled out of the country to see him; after she completed a marriage ceremony to him on Skype. The fatwa is easily the scariest part of the film, as it would invoke the deepest paranoia in anyone, but no viewer will find it surprising. The film’s thesis is best summarized by Maya Angelou: "when people show you who they are, believe them the first time." Lou is a nice, helpful man; Bilel is a trauma survivor turned terrorist; and Amy is a stressed, mediocre journalist who takes on more than she can handle.
Weirdly, the postscript epigraph seems inconsistent with the message of the film, since that card talks about the real-life journalist on whom Amy is based. Her undercover work in France brought six jihadists to justice and exposed Bilel as a terrorist cell – which is great. That woman was clearly much better equipped than Amy to deal with cult-like recruitment tactics, especially since Amy just breezed right by Bilel’s profiling of her for sex slavery: he asks repeatedly if she has green eyes and if she is a virgin, as well as if she is a new convert (because new converts are “more serious about religion”). He threatens death if she lies. Even at the end, she types, “It’s the fear that is killing us,” when that’s not correct at all. What’s killing people is suicide-cult members and their recruiters. The movie understands that concept better than its protagonist.