Stranger at the Gate: The film every American must watch

Joshua Seftel on set for 'Stranger at the Gate' [photo credit: Conall Jones]
6 min read
23 December, 2022
The New Arab Meets: Emmy Award-winning director, Joshua Seftel. Campaigning to upend harmful stereotypes through cinema, Joshua's latest film Stranger at the Gate exposes the inanity of Islamophobia in the US by appealing to our shared humanity.

“The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! he, between whom and thee there was enmity (will become) as though he was a bosom friend,” thus ordains the Holy Quran.

The documentary, Stranger at the Gate, validates the potency of this Quranic wisdom. The documentary is a piercingly touching film about the revocability of animosity and community survival.

The New Arab met with the film’s director, Joshua Seftel, to talk about Stranger at the Gate, the enduring Islamophobia in the US, and his life calling.

"I always wanted to make a change that would, in some small way, heal the world. I think one of the ways to do that is by trying to fight hate and build bridges of understanding. Anything that affects other humans, is my cause"

Joshua Seftel is a New York-based Emmy Award-winning director. He has directed several award-winning films and shows including Taking on the Kennedys, Emmy Award-winner and Peabody finalist Secret Life of Muslims, The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano, and the political satire War, Inc.

Joshua told The New Arab that, as a child, he wanted to be a physician. Born to a father who was a doctor, the young Seftel dreamt of joining Doctors Without Borders to save lives. His life calling took him to a different path that also permitted him to serve humanity:

“I always wanted to make a change that would, in some small way, heal the world. I think one of the ways to do that is by trying to fight hate and build bridges of understanding. Anything that affects other humans, is my cause.”

Director Joshua Seftel and Director of Photography Karl Schroder with the McKinney family [photo credit: Conall Jones]
Director Joshua Seftel and Director of Photography Karl Schroder with the McKinney family [photo credit: Conall Jones]

Joshua took a gap year before applying to medical school, which ended up being fortuitous. During his gap year, he made his first documentary, Lost and Found, which focused on state-run orphanages in Romania.

It was this journey that introduced him to the power of filmmaking, and the uncurtailable serviceability of art: “That film led to the American adoption of thousands of Romanian children. That made me think that, as a filmmaker, I can make the same impact as I imagined I would as a doctor.”

Building bridges of understanding

Stranger at the Gate is one of Joshua Seftel’s most touching films yet. A United States Marine veteran plots a terrorist attack on a small-town American mosque.

His life takes an unexpected detour when he comes face-to-face with the people, he was planning on killing. The documentary is marked by an appealing wryness of paradoxical intensities: The animosity towards a marginalised community, and the compelling need for the embrace of that very same community.

Dr Saber Bahrami, a member of the Muncie Muslim community, saw the veteran at the mosque and hugged him. A hug that convulsively opened McKinney’s eyes to a truth that was not apparent to him, Muslims were not his enemies.

Bibi Bahrami [photo credit: Karl Schroder]
Bibi Bahrami [photo credit: Karl Schroder]

Jomo Williams offered McKinney his help. Bibi Bahrami invited McKinney to her home. The warmth of the Muslim community shattered McKinney’s preconceived image of a war-loving community of terror and death.  

McKinney, a man who intended to do unimaginable harm to the Muslim community chose to learn from them and he eventually joined them. McKinney ended up converting to Islam and became a valuable member of the community to this day.

Joshua Seftel’s documentary tells the story from different vantage points in a way that weaves a conversation, not only between the different people but also between their past and present selves.

Joshua told The New Arab about his interviewing approaches: “An interview is a conversation that is a living, breathing thing and I let it live and go in directions that impose themselves. Usually, the follow-up questions, or even little moments of silence, bring out the most interesting moments. The point behind it is to get to the truth, to get people to open up. Ideally, I try to get people to say something that genuinely comes from the heart.”

Richard 'Mac' McKinney in the gym [photo credit: Karl Shroder]
Richard 'Mac' McKinney in the gym [photo credit: Karl Shroder]

A hug that saved lives

The documentary powerfully emphasises the role of religion in community survival, the unwavering power of love in quenching the flames of hatred, and most importantly, the documentary urges us to consider the power of radical peace as a chain breaker of the vicious cycle of radical violence.

McKinney was radicalised by the trauma of 9/11, and that is how trauma works, it finds ways of revitalising itself by re-manifesting in different forms of attack and counterattack. Trauma feeds on anger, grief, and hate.

Stranger at the Gate invites us to also reassess our ways of fighting hate. It is easy to get caught up in fighting hate systemically, fighting it through hard activism, organised institutional resistance, through think-tanks, big words, and bigger endeavours. Most of us forgot that we could still fight hate through much simpler acts of kindness.

The eye-opening moment of the film reminds us that an act as simple as smiling at a stranger could save their lives and ours. We never touch another human being ever so lightly that we do not leave an impact on them, that is the true message of the documentary. 

Stranger at the Gate is not about an equipoise between the ugliness of hate and the sublimity of love, it is about the prevalence of love. A burst of gratification goes right through our hearts as we see the day saved by a simple good deed and a warm embrace.

Islamophobia is a contested term; it insinuates that the hatred of Muslims is justifiable because it comes from fear. It almost exonerates those who bear ill feelings toward Muslims.

Mac, Jomo, Saber, Bibi [photo credit: David Herbert]
Mac, Jomo, Saber, Bibi [photo credit: David Herbert]

However, Stranger at the Gate forces us to (re)consider the danger of fear. Fear locks us deeper within our bubbles, it severs social ties, it feeds hatred.

A tug in the heart makes us realize that solitude comes with a very high price. By solitude here, one does not mean the absence of a family, but rather of a community. Even more, within countries as immense and diverse as the United States, this solitude has repeatedly manifested in large-scale hate crimes and acts of terror. 

Live Story

In America, Muslims moved from secret overlooked invisibility to sudden ruthlessly invasive visibility after 9/11.

The similarity between the Muslim community and McKinney, a US veteran, is undeniable. Both were overlooked, and both tell a story that is beyond themselves.

The film’s director concluded the interview with a powerful message of hope: “This story is a universal story. It is about our shared humanity. We live in a time where it is easy to feel hopeless. Where it is so easy to feel as if we are so divided beyond any hope of undoing that division, that we are stuck.

"When I saw this story, it reminded me of the hope of the possibility of building bridges and that it only takes a very simple thing to be done: To have compassion for the stranger, to be kind to the stranger. It is amazing how powerful that simple act can be. That gives me hope, and I wanted to share that with the world!”

Ouissal Harize is a UK-based researcher, cultural essayist, and freelance journalist.

Follow her on Twitter: @OuissalHarize