By Dan Bronfeld | Drama
An orphan boy is asked to give a violent performance in a propaganda film.

Nabil is a young boy orphaned by war. He has found himself in a new situation, however: he is acting in propaganda films, made by terrorists to sway minds against Western nations with stories of inhuman and extreme violence.

As part of the filmmaking team, he earns the love and appreciation of his director, Malik, as well as a sense of belonging to replace the family he has lost. But the line between fiction and reality blurs when Nabil is asked by his director to commit to an increasingly violent performance — including an irrevocable action that may prove a point of no return when it comes to his moral innocence.

This compelling, devastating dramatic short — directed and co-written by Dan Bronfeld, and co-written with Matthew Pancer — works on multiple levels, united by a powerful command of craftsmanship and ability to get deep inside a setting and social dynamic with unnerving patience and intimacy.

On one hand, the film is an uncanny portrayal of the inner workings of ISIS’s propaganda machine, and one of the great ironies is that the organization’s story- and image-making takes its cues from one of the most influential legacies of the West: Hollywood filmmaking and its ability to shape and structure feeling, loyalties, alliances and ideas.

The filmmaking crew at work in Akeda is clearly adept at making media, running their sets much like any other film production in the world, and the film draws unnerving parallels between ISIS propaganda and the Hollywood marketing machine’s own abilities to sell violence.

Intertwined with these observations is Nabil’s story, a much quieter and ultimately gut-wrenching journey of a lost young boy navigating a brutal world entirely on his own. As Nabil, young performer Gustavo Quiroz is self-contained, watchful and virtually silent, with very little dialogue. He’s captured in slow, deliberate pacing and camerawork, which reveals both how Nabil wanders disconnectedly through this senseless world, and just how shadowy and oddly detached this world is.

Yet as Nabil moves through the film — both the narrative itself and the film he’s making as part of ISIS — he clearly gravitates towards Malik, who offers him an understanding, almost fatherly bond and approval. Nabil compels as a character not for what he does or says, but how he takes in everything around him and reacts, especially to Malik. So when Nabil faces a choice to commit an undeniably brutal act or risk being severed from the only sense of belonging left to him, his decision is both horrifying and yet understandable.

“Akeda” is not an easy film to watch, and its deliberate, steady style — in everything from its longer takes to its pacing to its control of narrative information — doesn’t let any viewer off the hook when it comes to discomfort. As an audience, we are forced to face Nabil’s story and situation, feeling every thought and decision amidst the seeming madness. But we are also given the space to think and unravel the unthinkable nature of the ultraviolence we have witnessed, and perhaps wonder just how we have gotten here in the first place.

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