Director Cary Joji Fukunaga knows his new film about child soldiers in an unnamed West African country, Beasts of No Nation, is difficult to stomach. One of the more gruesome scenes, briefly featured in the trailer, shows the movie’s young protagonist Agu killing his first victim by swinging a machete into the top of the man’s skull. “I know inevitably there will be people who can’t make it through the film,” Fukunaga says. “But I also couldn’t diminish it so much that it didn’t feel authentic.”
The film—Netflix’s first feature project—follows Agu as he is indoctrinated into a West African rebel army by a warlord played by Idris Elba. Fukunaga, who acted as writer, director and cinematographer, worked on the movie for the better part of a decade, finally filming in Ghana last year after wrapping up his gig directing the entire first season of True Detective. There, he had to delay production when he came down with malaria, send money to film extras who had been jailed on suspicion of being mercenaries and take over the Steadicam when his cameraman suffered an injury. But the result of all their labor was a movie that’s already garnered Oscar buzz at the Venice and Toronto film festivals; it’s a beautiful punch in the gut.
“I’d rather be a documenter of our time in a fictional format than pretending none of this is happening,” says Fukunaga.
Read TIME’s full story about Fukunaga and Elba’s travails in the issue on stands Oct. 16.