• Film

Docs: “Stranger at the Gate” Tells An Amazing Story of Love Conquering Hate

An Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Short Film, Stranger at the Gate connects as a movie for these times. Against a real-world backdrop of swirling, often over-amplified political and religious extremism, its message of dissipated hatred and communal hopefulness is a welcome one.

At the center of director Joshua Seftel’s movie is a striking, unlikely tale of conversion not in the most immediate sense that many understand it — but conversion from enmity to not merely tolerance, but actual friendship.

The 29-minute nonfiction film tells the story of Mac McKinney, an-Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon his discharge, he married, became a doting stepfather, and returned to his hometown of Muncie, Indiana.

There, coping with a toxic mixture of post-traumatic stress disorder and bilious Islamophobia, McKinney began to plot an attack on a local Muslim community center. While conducting a reconnaissance visit of his intended target, he crossed paths with Dr. Saber Bahrami and his wife Bibi, one-time Afghan refugees who settled in Muncie in the 1980s. From there, things take an unexpected turn.

In advance of the Academy Awards ceremony this month, Seftel has been in Los Angeles for a number of special public screenings and Q&As over the last two weeks with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (and executive producer on the project) Malala Yousafzai — including Friday, February 24, at UCLA’s James Bridge Theater, and Wednesday, March 1, at the Directors Guild of America.

For Seftel, an Emmy-winning director whose socially conscious filmography has ranged from the documentary Lost and Found, about the plight of tens of thousands of Romanian orphans, to the political satire War, Inc., co-scripted by and starring John Cusack, the story of Stranger at the Gate came his way in slightly unusual fashion — when his producer came across a small newspaper article in a niche university edition of USA Today.

Immediately, however, the material resonated with him. “When I was growing up in upstate New York as a little boy, I was picked on for being Jewish, kids called me names. Someone threw a rock the size of a brick through the front window of our home,” said Seftel during one of the aforementioned Q&As. “And those memories stayed with me. I became a filmmaker, and after 9/11 I saw my Muslim friends facing hate. I thought, ‘I recognize this, I understand it.’ I felt a connection to them and felt like maybe I could in some small way do something with film.”

To that end, Seftel threw himself into a mission of unabashed cinematic advocacy, including a series of shorts called “The Secret Life of Muslims,” profiling prominent Muslim Americans. Stranger at the Gate represents the 25th different short film he and his team have made on this subject matter.

“We knew we had incredible characters, people who were so compelling, so we really leaned into the interview process and tried to think of the interviews as moments, or scenes,” explained Seftel when reflecting upon the film’s production, noting that moments of interaction, reflection or even avoidance between questions and answers were of special importance in the editing process.

“We used a lot of aerial shots, and the thought behind that was that there was a surveillance and military quality to it,” he continued. “Also, we were thinking about the eye of God in some ways. And, lastly, we didn’t want to use reenactments. We wanted to respect the audience and let them imagine what happened rather than show them what we thought happened. And so by showing aerials you’re there, you’re in the place, you can look down and see where it all happened, but it still leaves room for you to picture in your mind what might’ve happened.”

As part of their mission to reach as broad an audience as possible, the production is also partnering with Facing History in Ourselves, an anti-bigotry, pro-democracy organization which teaches kids to be so-called “upstanders,” meaning people who actively stand up to wrongs they see in the world. Through this platform, Stranger at the Gate will have access to scholastic distribution via the 400,000 educators across the country who participate in the program.

For both Seftel and Yousafzai, the upside of this potential viewership is enormous. “This film has such a powerful yet simple message: if you want to know a person, meet them, talk to them, share some moments with them,” Yousafzai said. “I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the world and it has really opened my mind. We all grow up with narrow ideas about what the world looks like, and with time and experience and exposure to stories you realize that the world is so colorful and diverse — we have different people from different backgrounds and cultures — and you have a better and true and real picture of the world as you learn more.”

The Pakistani-born Yousafzai, who began her human rights advocacy as a preteen — championing in particular the education of girls and women as a pathway toward helping to end generational poverty, and thus help to eradicate extremist philosophies — of course came to worldwide notoriety in 2012, when she survived being shot in the head as a 15-year-old in an assassination attempt by the Taliban. For her, the story of Stranger at the Gate was one that struck close to home.

“It was a difficult documentary to watch because I was worried about everybody in the film and didn’t know what was going to happen,” she admitted. In praising the kindness and compassionate outreach of Bibi and others interviewed in the movie, Yousafzai said the story underscores the need to cast out emotional helplines toward those who manifest the most need.

“We need to help people who face so many challenges,” she noted. “When I think about the person who attacked me, I know that that one person might have gone through some challenges in life that society would have failed to address. Sometimes people ask me if I forgive the attacker, and I’m like I forgive the person because it’s never just the individual. You can’t just get rid of individuals and fix a problem in society. If not that one person it could be someone else as well, because something on a bigger scale is happening, and that’s how people are limited from opportunities or are left behind or are exposed to indoctrination or lack of education, and how they might themselves have faced so much trauma and discrimination that there’s no guidance or support for them. So I personally believe that everybody deserves a chance, and when I come across a person who I don’t agree with I think the first thing you need to do is start a conversation. It’s so important to talk.”

One talk both Seftel and Yousafzai recently enjoyed came at the Oscar nominees luncheon. “We came across Steven Spielberg, as one does,” recounted Seftel with a smile. “And he came up to us, because I was with Malala. He knew about our film and said, ‘I’ve seen your film three times now and each time I’ve seen it I’ve cried in a different spot in the film.’ So that was just a lovely moment.”


“We’ve joked around that we want to make T-shirts with Bibi’s face on them that say, ‘What would Bibi do?’,” continued Seftel. “This film to me has a new kind of hero in it, and it’s the kind of hero we need right now — someone who uses love and compassion to bridge divides that are all around us. I feel like [this story] really proves that it can work for all of us. I believe that this film shows there’s something actionable we can all do: just talk to each other, be kind to each other, stay open. In this story it saved lives, but it can also change the world, I think. We can get to that place. I think we’ve moved away from it in the last several years, but I think we can get back to it.”

Stranger at the Gate, which is supported by the Doris Duke Foundation and presented by the New Yorker Studios, is available to view for free on YouTube.