Documentary Review: Stranger at the Gate

Stranger at the Gate is part of the New Yorker’s documentary series and is available to stream for free. It is a short but powerful conversation starter and Oscar nominated.

Stranger at the Gate is a short documentary by Joshua Seftel telling an astounding tale. This is a powerful and very necessary conversation starter about Islamaphobia, PTSD in soldiers, and how the simple act of showing a little humanity can avert disaster.

Richard “Mac” McKinney is a war veteran who was discharged from the US army after 25 years plus of service.  He was so damaged by his tours that he snapped when his daughter returned home after school and innocently asked what a hijab was after seeing one of her classmate’s mother wearing one. This leads to Mac deciding that he would blow up a local mosque to protect her because in his mind those people were the enemy and cannot be in the place where he and his family lived. Before enacting his plan he goes to the mosque to check it out. He’s met by Afghan refugees Bibi and others who show him so much love and fellowship, that it not only changes his mind but results in him becoming a frequent visitor.

Stranger at the Gate is told in the traditional documentary style with talking heads but mercifully no reenactments. However, it’s Seftel’s manner of bringing out the humanity of all the participants of the documentary that is the winning formula. None of them are reduced to cliches although crucially we aren’t shown or told if any other members of the Mosque and their thoughts on Mac once the plot is revealed.

The director in the post screening q&a said that after 9/11 he felt a connection to Muslim Americans. He wanted to create a platform to tell those stories to change the narrative, and to date, he has made 25 short documentaries. The biggest creative challenge in making Strange at the Gate was deciding against reenactments. He wanted to leave enough space for the audience to imagine the situation, rather than giving them a forced viewpoint. This is smart given the subject matter.

On a happy note, Mac has remarried and Bibi’s husband officiated his wedding. It shows that a little bit of kindness goes a long way. Click on the image below to watch the full documentary.

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