“I think there are two big problems in our society right now: we’re closed off from each other and we’re intransigent,” filmmaker Joshua Seftel said in a virtual interview with The Michigan Daily.

Photo courtesy of Gabby Porter

Seftel’s short documentary Stranger at the Gate, produced by The New Yorker, tells the story of a true story Mack McKinney, the man who planned to attack a the mosque and turned to Islam instead. The film makes viewers understand the importance of addressing the issues Seftel highlights and more importantly inspires them to want to change the way we humans in society interact with each other.

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

He arrived at St the mosque and was met with pure, simple sympathy.

Photo courtesy of Carl Schroeder

Dr. Saber Bahrami, a member of the Munsi Muslim community, saw McKinney and hugged him as he would any person attending prayer. Another man, Joma Williams, saw McKinney looking worried and asked what he could do to help. Bibi Bahrami, a woman who has been compared to Mother Teresa because of the way she welcomes people into her home, invited McKinney to visit even after knowing what he was going to do.

McKinney, a man intent on harming this community, was treated kindly, and that meant a lot. He was touched by their compassion and decided to learn from them and eventually join them. He converted to Islam despite his initial beliefs about Muslims. He is a proud Muslim to this day.

Documentaries detailing tragedies are especially difficult to watch. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that these struggles that you watch as entertainment are real experiences and feelings that people have gone through. Watching A Stranger at the Gate, I felt this to a degree that I had never felt before. As a Muslim to hear about this man’s plan to attack a the mosque, a place of worship, was horrible. I was thinking about my local ones the mosque and how my family and I see it as a place of safety. My father is one of the founders; I can’t think of it as a second home.

But this Muslim community had more than enough strength and compassion I’m sorry McKinney for his alleged actions, but in reality welcome him to his community.

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

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

Photo courtesy of Carl Schroeder

This short documentary was recently announced as Qualifying for an Oscarwhich Seftel commented on.

He admitted that “it’s nice to receive awards (and)… to compete for an Oscar,” but it wasn’t the most important thing for him. He recalled the moment when he showed the film at the Islamic Center of Muncie, where the story was filmed, that was the most significant moment. “When the film ended, a man stood up – a member of the mosque – and said, ‘every American should see this film.’ And then I realized that… we succeeded.” What mattered to him was the impact he made, not the prospect of reward.

The film is definitely well made on a technical level. Primarily a mix of interviews with Mack, members of the Muslim community, Mack’s family, and even FBI agents, Stranger at the Gate captures a wide range of perspectives on the incident. But more important than lighting, angles and all the other technicalities that “make a good movie”, by showing real people and the effect of real kindness, Seftel’s short documentary makes the viewer realize the compassion of these Muslims and gives hope that more people can be really good.

Photo courtesy of Carl Schroeder

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

Art Editor-in-Chief Sabria Imam can be reached at simami@umich.edu.

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