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Josh Seftel Brings Us the “Stranger at The Gate”

March 10, 2023

Making Media Now, the FC podcast, recently featured a conversation between host Michael Azevedo and director Josh Seftel, an FC member. . Josh and his team at Smarty Pants films have received an Oscar nomination in the category of best documentary short for their film “Stranger at the Gate,” (for which Filmmakers Collaborative was the fiscal sponsor) a riveting story of redemption about Richard “Mac” McKinney, a former U.S. Marine, suffering from PTSD, who had fought in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Following his discharge from the military, McKinney returned home to Muncie, IN where he began to construct a plot to blow up the local mosque. “Stranger at the Gate” tells the remarkable story of what happened when McKinney set out to put his plan into motion.

What follows is an edited excerpt from that conversation. 

Making Media Now: Welcome Josh and let me extend congratulations to you and your team for your Oscar nomination in a category of best documentary short for your film Stranger at The Gate. 

Josh Seftel: Thank you. We’re very excited about it. 

MMN: Give our listeners sort of a synopsis of the film and how the story came to you or how, how you found out about the, this, this story of Richard Mack McKinney. 

JS: I’ll give you a quick summary of the story. So the film tells the story of, of Mack McKinney, a US Marine comes back from 25 years overseas fighting combat. He’s a broken person when he comes back, he’s PTSD, he’s filled with hatred, especially hatred toward Muslims, and he decides that the best thing he can do for his country is to bomb the local mosque in his hometown in Indiana. 

So he builds a bomb getting ready to, to do the deed, and he ends up having an argument with his daughter. His daughter is eight years old, and she has a Muslim friend, and he finds out about this and he flips out on her and they have a huge fight, and they’re yelling at each other, and he runs to his room and he’s weeping, and you know, the guy’s a mess. And he decides that what he needs to do is he needs to go to the mosque to do some reconnaissance, to get proof of how evil these people are prior to doing the bombing. 

So he goes to the mosque when he arrives, the people at the mosque, the congregants who are, you know, a blend of different people. There’s a, there are some Afghan refugees, there’s an African American convert, and they welcome him into the mosque and they show him incredible kindness even though they, what they see in front of them is this hulking scary guy who’s covered in tattoos, is flush in the face, is, is, is shaking. 

They can see there’s something wrong with this guy. And they, they show him compassion and, and they welcome him in. And at that point, the story takes a, a dramatic turn. Now, whether or not you want me to, I’m happy to, to spoil the ending. 

MMN: Let’s not spoil the ending. I don’t know that this is necessarily a spoiler, but in, in multiple headlines regarding the film, there’s a description where it is a, a a story of hope and love overcoming conflict and, and hate. So I don’t think that qualifies as a spoiler. I hope it qualifies as an enticement to, for people to watch the film. 

JS: Another headline that I really liked that kind of captures the spirit of the film is something like, he came, he came to kill them, they ended up saving his life. 

MMN: How did you find out about this story? 

JS: I was working on a series of short films called Secret Life of Muslims, and whole idea behind that was to create a platform to share stories about American Muslims that I felt were important to tell because there weren’t enough stories being told about American Muslims that were accurate, that that captured the spirit of, of, you know, what, what it is to be Muslim in America right now. And the reason I was drawn to this was that, you know, I grew up in upstate New York, and when I was a little boy, I got picked on for being Jewish. 

And you know, kids called me names, they called me Duke Hike threw pennies at me to remind me that, you know, Jews are cheap. And, you know, those, those things stayed with me. And after nine 11, when I was working as a filmmaker in, you know, I saw my Muslim friends facing that similar kind of hate, and I felt a connection to them and felt as a filmmaker, maybe there’s something I can do. So I, I started the making these films, and in the process we came across this story, the story of Mac McKinney and the mosque in Muncie, Indiana. 

One of my producers, Anna Rowe, found the story in USA Today University Edition. And we decided this story is incredible. We went and found the people who were involved and met them and we were just blown away by the how inspiring they are. 

MMN: Was it a difficult process for you to establish trust and a rapport with, with Mac McKinney? Because there’s a segment in the film where you can be heard off camera asking him, “How did killing people change you?” And it’s such an abrupt direct question. He almost loses his breath. He has to take a beat or two, and he says, “I never really told that.” 

And from the viewer’s perspective, we still don’t know what his decision was when going to the mosque at the, at the time you posed that question. And as a viewer, I’m thinking, are you referencing killing people in the military or killing people in the aftermath of what was going to be a domestic terrorist event? I would imagine you’ve gotta feel pretty secure in your rapport with a subject to come at them with a question like that. 

JS: We had talked a lot, we knew each other well at this point. And, and I made a point of spending time with him and talking to him a lot before the interview. The way that I approached it was I wore a microphone as well because I wanted to make sure that with this film, I just knew that there were gonna be moments in the interview that would be really important. This film is very interview based. 

So by wearing a microphone and by interacting with my subjects in a way that at times might feel a little provocative, I was looking for moments where the character of these people would be revealed not just through words, but through their reaction to my questions. 

MMN: Do you know if Max sought treatment for PTSD when he ended his military career? Did he think of himself as somebody who had PTSD? 

JS: I know he is done a lot of therapy. I think more so in recent years. At that time he was drinking a lot. At the time when he was thinking of bombing the mosque, he was drinking, I think, two gallons of vodka every couple days or something. It was a bad time and he was crying a lot and just not well. And I think that was around the time when he was building the bomb and thinking about doing this horrible act. 

MMN: Did you have a sense that Max’s psychological makeup would allow him to easily develop a hate for groups he considered being part of “the other”?

Or was that a byproduct of his military training? 

JS: I don’t know how someone develops that level of hatred. I think when you’re on the battlefield and people are shooting at you, and they all seem to be from one group, you know, in the space, many of them were Muslim, they become the enemy. I think in Mac’s case, he did not think of them as being human. I think that was the foundation of his hatred. 

MMN: Your film is nominated for an Oscar in the category of best documentary short. When you decided that you wanted to tell this story, what were the what was the decision making process around deciding on length.

JS: That’s a good question. We always went into it thinking it was a short, and partly that was because of that was about how much funding we had.

We knew we had enough to make it short, but not a longer film. 

What happened was there was a moment where you have a cut and it’s like 50 minutes. And you’re kind of like, “Oh, maybe this is a feature.” So we did toy with that for a moment, but we quickly realized that as the film got shorter, it kept getting better. 

MMN: Tell me about what the morning was like when you found out that your film had been nominated for an Oscar. 

JS: The Academy asked us all to record our reactions on video, like selfie video. I had very little interest in doing this. In fact, I was not going to participate. And then some of the people on my team said, no, let’s just do it. We’ll all do it together on Zoom and if we don’t make it, we’ll just trash the video and if we do make it, we’ll have it. 

And so I was like, all right, fine. So there’s six of us on Zoom, and we’re all watching, and they get to the best, best documentary short, and they read the first name. It’s not us, second name, not us. And now we’re all starting to like shrink a little bit in our seats, get a little lower, you know, third name, not us. 

Some of us are starting to put our faces into our hands and fourth name, not us. And we’re like, “Oh, well we didn’t make it.” And suddenly the fifth one was us and all of us in unison, just all six of us just popped up! We just did not expect it at that point. And we were delighted. 

It means that this film will be seen by so many more people. This message that love conquers hate, which we is something I think we need right now. Since we were nominated you can just watch the YouTube views. They’re going up by thousands and thousands of views every day. And that’s really exciting to us. 

MMN: Nobody going to the Oscars can get away with not being asked this question. Who are you bringing and who are you wearing? 

JS: Ha ha! I’m bringing my wife Erica Frankel, who’s also a filmmaker, and I’m also bringing Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner She’s also an executive producer on the film. Malala really believes in this film and it’s exciting to have that kind of endorsement and that kind of support because I think in many ways Malala is the human embodiment of the message of our film. She represents compassion, education and also forgiveness. That’s, that’s what our film’s about.

MMN: Well sincere congratulations from everybody at Filmmakers Collaborative. The film is Stranger at The Gate. You can see it on YouTube, you can go to the New Yorker website and see it there. And I’ve been speaking with the director of the film, Josh Seftel. Thanks so much, Josh. And we will be watching and eagerly anticipating the outcome of the category award at the 95th Academy Awards on March 12th. 

JS: Thanks Michael. And I just wanna say a thank you to Filmmakers Collaborative for being our partner on this film and for being our fiscal sponsor. We love working with you all and we wouldn’t be here today without you. So thank you for your partnership. 

We are grateful for the generous support of our sponsors:

Massachusetts Cultural Council
Lowel Cultural Council
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Liberty Mutual Foundation