Sam is a reclusive young man who finds solace with those who share the same self-described title as him: Incel.

When his countless real-life efforts at love fail, Sam turns to this anonymous community of the “involuntarily celibate” for help, but instead finds himself increasingly pushed towards extremism. Written and directed by John Merizalde, Incel started when he began finding interest in the type of character, and only grew with each passing mass shooting event. Controversial but important to highlight, John’s statement argues the intriguing depth in creating, or understanding such characters.

My interest in this type of character first began in May 2014, after the real-life mass shooting perpetrated by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista. He wasn’t the first to violently target women, but what I found uniquely disturbing was the trail of vlogs that he left online leading up to the attack. His descent into violent, misogynistic beliefs with a plan for “retribution” was chronicled over time, which eventually culminated in a manifesto video. In the vlogs he comes across like a satirical movie villain reading from a script. It was surreal and weirdly entrancing. In hindsight, these videos are chilling. But what always struck me was that these vlogs were initially received with amusement and derision. Nobody took them seriously until it was too late. This made me think about internet culture on a broader scale.

We consume content online at an alarming rate. Combined with the anonymity of the internet, it’s warped how we interpret and emotionally react to stuff, from the mundane to the traumatic. When you’re “too online” – bombarded with so many cynical jokes, images, and videos you start to come down with irony poisoning. If you spend any amount of time on a site like 4chan, Reddit, or even Youtube, you’ll come across a spectrum of horrific comments on literally any topic. There’s something about posting anonymously that seems to bring out the worst in mass groups of people.

I realized I’ve seen several posts where individuals with obvious mental illness are ridiculed and even encouraged to harm themselves or others. In some cases, people have documented their violent crimes live online to a gleefully participating audience. These developments were, to me, almost as troubling as Elliot Rodger himself. There’s a dark element of internet culture that incubates and breeds antisocial behavior. For many people, they reserve that behavior solely for the web, but what happens when it spills into real life?

Fast forward a couple years. I started coming across “incel” forums online. If you don’t know already, incel stands for involuntarily celibate. Subcultures have been created for pretty much anything you can think of, so it’s no surprise that self-appointed incels exist. But what did surprise me was the size of this group and the tone of their rhetoric. With a simple internet search, you could be transported to a thriving online forum where people freely debate the merits of forced monogamy, racial pseudoscience, and gendered genocide. And although Elliot didn’t subscribe to these forums, he was posthumously heralded as a hero and martyr by forum members. Then 2016 happened.

In the lead up to the US Presidential election, the fringes came to the forefront, and suddenly people’s parents were talking about Pizzagate and Pepe. What were once niche internet bubbles were becoming more and more mainstream. The thing is, the irony was left behind now, and what we started to see in real-time was radicalization with real consequences. Up until this point, I had never considered the real-life implications of toxic internet cultures. This was what finally prompted my interest in making a film, and although I’m exploring the world of incels here, I do think it’s about something much bigger. If I had to boil it down to one question: How do we identify and deal with the reality of online radicalization without compromising our right to free speech?

I understand that this is a difficult and uncomfortable topic. The threat of harassment and violence is all too real for many women, and so the idea of following a character like this may be abhorrent to some on principal alone. That said, I think a level of empathy is necessary for dealing with any troubling group or idea. Just because we shield our eyes away from something, doesn’t mean that it will go away. So first off, I hope audiences are able to rationally digest this whole thing. It’s impossible to be truly objective when making a film, but I think it’s really important for a filmmaker to present characters without their own moral judgment getting in the way.

I think there are a lot of ideas to take away from this film, many of which aren’t exactly novel. Movies like Taxi Driver, Elephant, and Polytechnique all explore similar themes of gun violence, misogyny, mental illness, and alienation. As I mentioned earlier though, the dilemma of online radicalization is something that is fairly unique to our time. Never before could individuals, spread out everywhere, connect and build such niche communities.

More than anything, I hope this sparks conversation. There’s a whirlwind of social, cultural, and economic dynamics at play that are pushing many young and disenfranchised men towards dangerous ideologies in our country, and we can’t just ignore it.