Director Joshua Seftel joins us on Close-Up Culture to discuss his OSCAR-shortlisted short film, Stranger At The Gate.
The documentary tells the story of a U.S. Marine who plots a terrorist attack on a small-town American mosque. His plan takes an unexpected turn when he comes face-to-face with the people he sets out to kill.
Can you tell us how you came across the story for your documentary short film, Stranger At The Gate?
We first came across the story in a newspaper article, and I was like, “oh my God?!” A scary looking US Marine covered in tattoos entered a mid-western mosque with the intention of bombing it and when the congregants of the mosque, mostly immigrants, treated him with kindness, he ended up joining the mosque instead! Just an incredible story.
At the time, we were working on a set of short documentaries called Secret Life of Muslims. It’s a project that grew out of the anti-Semitism I faced as a boy growing up in upstate New York. And years later when I became a filmmaker, and I saw the kind of hate that my Muslim friends were facing after 9/11, it felt familiar to me. And that’s when I started making short films that aim to combat Islamophobia. So when we came across this article and once I reached out and spoke directly with Bibi and Saber Bahrami, founders of the mosque and heroes of this story, I was so inspired by them and the actions they took in the face of this dangerous stranger, that I knew we had to make this film.
I think it’s fair to say that the film’s narrative doesn’t go in the direction that you first suspect it might. Was it always your intention to reveal the story of Richard ‘Mac’ McKinney in this way? Or was that a decision you made later on in the filmmaking process?
This story naturally has such a suspenseful and surprising twist built into it and we knew we had to lean into that and take the audience on a wild ride. The journey of Mac’s transformation is shocking, like a thriller, and we wanted to get people to watch who might not ordinarily watch a documentary with this kind of message in it. And that twist is so important because the audience thinks that they’re getting one thing and they’re getting something very different. This is a Trojan Horse story. It’s disguised as a thriller but there’s a deeply urgent message hidden inside.
Mac comes across as such a fascinating character – and shows that we as humans potentially have an equal capacity to hate and to love, with just a razor-thin line separating the two. But were you happy with how he ultimately came across in the film? And was he?
Mac McKinney is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever met. I can’t think of a better messenger for the idea that people can change. And now more than ever, we’re at a time where we need to believe that people can change and that we can all start to find a path to get along with each other. I think people find him to be very relatable. He reminds some of people they know or maybe even of themselves. He’s an example of someone who was filled with hatred and misinformation, in part from his military experience. I think there are many people who will be willing to listen to his story, who might benefit from it. And Mac likes the film because his goal these days is to end hatred and to prove that we have a shared humanity that can bring us together.
Can you tell us something about your creative process when working on a documentary film?
Well, every film is different. For Stranger At The Gate, the big challenge was how do you tell a story that already happened? There was no footage. There were few photographs. And so in this case, we relied very heavily on two things; one was the interviews that we did, and those were very emotionally intense interviews. I viewed the interviews like verite scenes. Both the subjects and I wore microphones. My interaction with them was more than just asking questions, I was trying to uncover moments. And you’ll see throughout the film that there are these moments where we use the silence, the space between the questions and the answers to help develop the story. Keeping those spaces and being able to really feel those raw moments was important to the story.
The other element we used was aerial shots. There’s a theme of military surveillance. There’s this feeling of the Eye of God. And what I liked about using aerial shots in lieu of, say, reenactments, was I wanted people to imagine the scenes in their own mind. And by using aerial shots where you can see the place where these things happened down below you, but you can’t quite make out what’s going on. That allows that space for the audience to imagine in their minds what happened. And I always believe that what the audience can imagine in their minds is going to most likely be more interesting and vivid than an artificial reenactment.
Stranger At The Gate is now shortlisted for the 95th Academy Awards, in the “Documentary Short Film” category. What are the blessings and the challenges of having a film that’s a potential Oscar contender?
The message of this film is very close to my heart. And I believe that the characters in this film, in particular Bibi and Saber Bahrami, are inspiring. The way they live their lives, the way they treat other people is something we can all learn from. They show how powerful kindness and compassion can be. To have this film shortlisted for the Oscars, it just amplifies that message and gives us an opportunity to reach a bigger and broader audience. And that’s the blessing.
I would say the challenges are that the campaign is exhausting! We’ve done nearly 50 screenings in the last four months, traveling to cities and festivals all over the country, and even to the UK Parliament in London. It’s exhausting, but it’s exciting to get to share the message of the film, the idea that love conquers hate, at this moment in time when people are in need of a story like this.
This is the latest film in your ongoing (and award-winning) “Secret Life Of Muslims” project, which aims to combat Islamophobia through filmmaking. What made this particular story such a good fit for that project?
This film shatters stereotypes about American Muslims. In this story the heroes are Muslim, and there aren’t enough stories like that in our culture. What I also really love about this story is that it transcends religion – it’s about humanity, about what is possible when we are kind to a stranger, when we’re kind to someone who we don’t know and who seems to be very different from us. There’s a power in that. That kind of positive approach to other people is something that I believe could make the world a better place if everyone embraced that. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from Bibi and Saber and how they approach their lives and how they approach other people. And it has changed the way that I think about other people that I meet and how I treat them.
Finally, what do you hope audiences take away from watching Stranger At The Gate?
I hope that other people are changed or inspired in the same way. That when they watch this film, they might feel more hopeful about the future of our society. They might find a way to bring more compassion and openness to their interactions with other people. We live in a time of great division and hate, where hate crimes are a regular occurrence. And if we can find a way to talk to each other, if we can find a way to connect and find our shared humanity, I believe that’s a start, and that there’s hope.