Review: "The Other Profile" by Armel Hostiou (2023)

A Frenchman in the Congo may raise eyebrows even today, but Armel Hostiou’s The Other Profile does something very different in this documentary revolving around identity theft and the quest to find the culprit, with unusual results. In what appears to be a film stemming from the director’s sheer curiosity with the situation, he takes on his first documentary project with laudable results, despite falling short in its attempt at big-picture commentary of the film’s setting and conditions.

Upon learning that someone in Kinshasa — the megacity capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — is impersonating him on Facebook, and failing to successfully remove the profile, Hostiou flies there to find the “fake Armel”. This decidedly privileged and perhaps questionable move takes him to his new home based at an artists’ residence run by the cool-headed Sarah — with her dog Macron — and the eager-to-please Peter, two Black locals who help the director in his search. However, in an urban metropolis 17 million strong and growing, his objective seems foolhardy, almost nonsensical.

Hostiou is both subject and object of this story in this participatory documentary that erodes the Cartesian distinction between mind and body. Equipped with a camera and microphone, the filmmaker carefully tracks his own story alongside one other cinematographer, who literally turns the camera back on Hostiou (but mostly for comedic effect). B-roll wide shots of the urban cityscape add texture, but the director never plays with visual style as much as he tries to with its narrative, which feels like a small betrayal for a work that, narratively, fixates on the “documentary thriller” label. As the journey unfolds, the idiosyncratic, hyper-local moments of life in Kinshasa — or simply “Kin” — often overtake the film’s innate adventure storyline in vivacity and appeal.

Nonetheless, the film easily draws laughs from some of the plot’s natural absurdities, its unobtrusive and often static camerawork allowing the hilarity to create itself. To bait the scammer, Sarah and her friends draft an elaborate and flowery romantic message, which Hostiou immediately questions, but it becomes the investigation’s most promising lead. In the scene, the lens is pointed directly at these three musketeers as they perform a dramatic reading of their text. Undoubtedly eliciting laughs from many audiences, this theatrical moment exposes the chuckling viewer, too, as gullible, who fails to recognize the local know-how of someone dealing with sleazy men in Kinshasa. It further skewers the filmmaker’s naivety after visiting a marabout — typically referring to a Muslim spiritual guide — who demands 22 sheep heads and 22 crow heads in return, or 100 dollars a head instead should he not be able to provide.

Despite its comedic charm, The Other Profile falls flat when trying to dig deeper into what is otherwise a richly textured canvas for conversation. The film is quick to allude to the colonial legacy of the DRC, which gained independence from Belgium in 1960 (then the Belgian Congo) and is now the most populous Francophone country in the world. Its gently idiomatic French title, Le vrai du faux, suggests a more layered interrogation around authenticity, appropriation as reclamation, and the nature of truth versus reality. Meanwhile, its English title, The Other Profile, perhaps unintentionally evokes the implications of the exotic “other” within a society grappling with its still-fresh colonial past.

The film description boasts a “story about internet, identities[,] and post-colonial struggles in the 21st century”. However, it fails in its numerous attempts to insert any sort of postcolonial commentary beyond soundbites provided by the characters themselves. The most reflexive remark is made by a DRC local in an effortlessly performed freestyle rap lamenting the country’s violent colonial history remixed into a fraught postcolonial present: “Human rights are for whites, not for blacks — we mourned our dead, but they took the bodies.” Perhaps it was impossible for Hostiou, a French-speaking man able to communicate with ease in a central African country, not to at least mention the DRC’s dark history. Yet deeper, more critical reflection never comes.

The Other Profile never feels like an act of othering, although there do remain some dubious moments around the use of characters’ likenesses in the film under circumstances they were lied to about, which the director points out in voiceover. Regardless, it remains embedded in a landscape of films with such a subtext: A white man travels to Africa, filming his journey as he seeks… “himself”? Nonetheless, it subverts this narrative with a brief but touching section that, near the end of the film, allows one of the subjects to literally write his own story instead of always being shown through the lens of Hostiou’s camera.

Peeling back the layers of the fake Armel ruse, the film does, in passing, reveal the shadowy power of promise behind what one character calls the “American or European dream”, which so many in the Global South see themselves as aspiring toward. Its shadow lingers most strongly in the basis of the film — that someone did impersonate Armel Hostiou in Kinshasa for their own gain, leveraging the allure of fame, fortune, and connections with a white European man.

While Hostiou may have never known what was going to happen on this journey, the resolution begs the questions: Who benefits from the creation and screening of this film, and should this trip really have been taken at all? As the filmmaker and his team are on the cusp of finding the impostor, the latter half of the film takes on a life of its own, less conventionally thrilling than the first part but ultimately more striking. Hostiou’s story is decentered in a move that, in many ways, shows how commonplace and even uninspired this fixation on “identity theft” is.

And yes, when you look on Facebook for the fake Armel’s profile, it’s still there.

Olivia Popp