Photo courtesy of Karl Schroder

“I think (there) are two really major problems in our society right now: We’re closed off from each other, and we’re unforgiving,” director Joshua Seftel said in a virtual interview with The Michigan Daily.

Photo courtesy of Gabi Porter

Seftel’s short documentary film “Stranger at the Gate,” produced by The New Yorker, tells the true story of Mac McKinney, a man who planned to attack a masjid and instead turned to Islam. The film makes its viewers aware of the importance of addressing the problems Seftel highlights and, more importantly, impresses upon them the desire to change the way we as people in a society interact with each other. 

McKinney, a veteran, was taught during his time in the military to see Muslims as enemies. He intended to act on this belief when he returned to Muncie, Indiana; he planned an attack, gathered materials to make a bomb and intended to blow up the Islamic Center of Muncie.

He arrived at the masjid and was met with pure, simple compassion. 

Photo courtesy of Karl Schroder

Dr. Saber Bahrami, a member of the Muncie Muslim community, saw McKinney and hugged him, the way he would any individual there for prayer. Another person, Jomo Williams, saw McKinney looking troubled and asked how he could help. Bibi Bahrami, a woman who people liken to Mother Teresa because of how she accepts people into her home, invited McKinney as a guest, even after learning what he intended to do.

McKinney, a man who intended to do harm to this community, was treated with kindness, and that made all the difference. He was moved by their compassion and chose to learn from them and, eventually, join them. He turned to Islam in spite of his initial beliefs regarding Muslims. He is proudly Muslim to this day. 

Documentaries detailing tragedies are particularly difficult to watch. To know that these struggles you’re watching as entertainment are real experiences and feelings that people have gone through is hard to reconcile. When watching “Stranger at the Gate,” I felt this to a degree I had never experienced before. As a Muslim, to hear about this man’s plan to attack a masjid, a place of worship, was terrifying. I thought about my local masjid and how my family and I look at it as a place of safety. My father is one of the founders; I can’t view it as anything other than a second home. 

But this Muslim community had the strength and compassion to not only forgive McKinney for his intended actions but to actually welcome him into their community. 

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like this story, that kind of … welcoming of a stranger without judgment,” said Seftel, “and recognizing … his vulnerability.” “They knew he was a troubled person, and they met that with kindness.” Even now, Seftel appears awed by what he witnessed.

“If we all could be a little more like (Bibi), and the way she acted, the way she treated Mac, I just think we’d be living in a better world,” Seftel said.

Photo courtesy of Karl Schroder

This documentary short was recently announced as Oscar-qualifying, which Seftel commented on.

He admitted that “it’s nice to win awards (and) … be in the running for the Oscar,” but that wasn’t the most important thing to him. He recalled the moment when he showed the film at the Islamic Center of Muncie, where they filmed the story — that was the most meaningful moment. “When the film was over, a man stood up — a member of the mosque — and he said, ‘this film needs to be seen by every American.’ And that’s when I knew … we had succeeded.” The impact he made was what mattered to him, not the prospect of accolades.

The film is certainly done well on a technical level. Primarily a mixture of interviews with Mac, members of the Muslim community, Mac’s family and even members of the FBI, “Stranger at the Gate” covers a wide variety of perspectives on this incident. But more important than lighting and angles and all the other technicalities that “make a good film,” by showing the real people and the effect of genuine kindness, Seftel’s documentary short makes the viewer realize the compassion of these Muslims and offers hope that more people can be genuinely kind.

Photo courtesy of Karl Schroder

“My hope is that people who … liked the film, who find it to be meaningful and important … (will) share it,” Seftel said. The film is available on YouTube and The New Yorker’s site for free, an intentional decision to make it as accessible as possible because, as Seftel stated, “we care about getting the message out into the world. So I would say if … the message resonates with you, please be an ally and share it, tell others about it.”

Managing Arts Editor Sabriya Imami can be reached at simami@umich.edu.