Stranger at the Gate (2022)
Director: Joshua Seftel
Featuring: Richard McKinney, Bibi Bahrami, Saber Bahrami, Zaki Bahrami, Kent Kurtz, Dana McKinney, Emily McKinney
Our current space is filled with division, with otherness, with hatred and vitriol. Stranger at the Gate, a Documentary Short Subject nominee at the 95th Academy Awards directed by Joshua Seftel, begins with a glimpse at the heart-wrenching worst case scenario for all of this misunderstanding, presenting a True Crime-style opening of racism and murder before dissolving to reveal the remarkable and true story of love, acceptance and understanding that is this film’s subject.
Richard McKinney was a US Marine for a quarter of a century. Upon returning home and being reintroduced into normal life in Muncie, Indiana, McKinney – motivated by his time at war, and the 9/11 terror attacks – saw Muslims as the enemy. He planned to blow up a local place of prayer, even building an improvised explosive device (an IED) that he thought he could kill up to 200 people with. After a chance encounter his adopted daughter had at school, he visited the place of prayer for reconnaissance. The warmth and love he would receive from strangers would divert his life onto another path; a path of light, of love, of what McKinney himself describes as “what true humanity is all about”.
It’s a remarkable story, and it is told so honestly by the subject himself and the loved ones who were there through his process or have learned to love McKinney as a friend in the years since.
This is the power of Stranger at the Gate, and of the Oscars’ Documentary Short Subject category in a wider context. It can turn left when it promises to turn right, it can celebrate the story of love conquering pure hatred, it can paint characters in shades of grey rather than safe, box office-ready, investor friendly, black and white.
It’s not a film told with as much clarity as you might expect, the majority of this issue arising from its intention to switch the formulaic (and never-more-popular) True Crime genre on its head, its title cards, re-enactments and restricted use of archival footage at times distracting from the talking heads whom recount their stories in such a precise and understandable way. The opening few minutes are quite frustrating as a result, especially if you’re going into this short film without knowing what to expect, but the filmmakers ultimately understand the power of a tale like this in such a divisive era as that which we’re living through, and as such the power of the message is what you’ll ultimately take away from this film.
Richard McKinney had been convinced that Muslims were the enemy. This, combined with PTSD, drove him to nearly become a mass murderer. Our individual lives may never sink to such drastic plans of action, but the prejudices that were present in McKinney are applicable to almost any religious or political discussion ongoing in our current zeitgeist, and as such his unlearning of absolute racism can be seen as a beacon of hope that we too can learn to outgrow our division.
Shot clearly, in the modern and ever-streamable style of the True Crime documentary, Strangers at the Gate offers something that extends that tried and tested formula into the realm of honest to goodness human empathy, encouraging love and understanding even in the face of fear.
As McKinney’s own potential victim did when hearing of his would-have-been crimes… invite that opposing voice in for dinner, win them over with love. You may save a life.