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Stranger at the Gate

With the Oscars just around the corner, we’re taking a look at one of this year’s most interesting nominations. Stranger at the Gate, a short documentary directed by Joshua Seftel, tells the true story of a PTSD-suffering former U.S. Marine who set out to bomb a mosque but instead converted to Islam. Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is on board as executive producer, and has described the film as “a powerful true story of forgiveness and redemption”. But what did our writers make of it?

A red and pink graphic with two images layered on top, one of a woman in a navy headscarf smiling, and one of an older man with white hair staring at the camera

Alec


With a documentary, it feels hard to critique what plays out on screen - how do I say I didn’t like something that is the truth? In a vacuum, Richard McKinney is an interesting character. A staple, hulking American Jarhead suffering from PTSD after his service in Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of this, he has developed a virulent hatred of Muslims. The documentary would have you believe this is a fate that could befall any average Joe undergoing a tour of duty. As far as we’re told, Richard’s early life wasn’t influenced by any far right rhetoric. The kind of racism Richard holds isn’t something the average person could just develop. But I felt that the film failed to discuss the influence of American media and the Islamophobic news cycles that ran perpetually after 9/11.


Bibi Bahrami, the Afghan refugee whose mosque McKinney planned to bomb, does touch on life as a Muslim post 9/11. But there is no discussion in regard to the US media monopoly pushing misinformation onto the average American, it simply puts Islamophobia down to an independent fear. No footage of news anchors pushing narratives, no interviews with racists repeating headlines and no novelty ‘never forget’ t-shirts and coffee mugs. The country’s lucrative propaganda is perhaps the greatest influence on why people like McKinney feel the way they do. I think that the fact the documentary never ties the media nor the American war machine’s potency in American culture to this narrative, is a real ethical misstep.


The film ends on a positive note after McKinney is welcomed and forgiven by the Muslim community for his prejudice. On paper, this idea of ‘love wins all’ should be uplifting but in reality it just feels short-sighted by the filmmakers. What if the Muslim community were rightfully scared of a large, angry white man appearing unannounced in their place of worship? Is it their responsibility to always be courteous to individuals that hate them? Can we undo years of racist ideology just by physically embracing someone? This is an incredibly one note resolution to something that isn’t a one-off story but remains a widespread, systemic issue long after the events of 9/11.


Whilst I think that McKinney as a person is interesting, considering his career and spiritual change - not to mention a captivating story-teller throughout the documentary - there is a better use of his journey than what is presented here.


Putting my own bias for technical preference aside, I personally feel that character pieces where the discussion is held purely by the subject of the story and less so the edit, will always be better. The editing here stifles a lot of the breathing room we might have had, that would have allowed for more unique details about the character to come through. This alongside the persistent strings in the soundtrack just made the whole thing feel manipulative. Even if this documentary was 60 minutes, I’m not sure the length would have helped any further development of the story. Ultimately for me, the style felt like it was more of a well funded, YouTube video essay rather than an interesting, artistic vision by a documentarian. I think the film’s heart is mostly in the right place but struggles to make any broader point beyond the surface level.


I don’t know who Stranger at the Gate is for outside of the choir it’s preaching to. The lack of nuance or any kind of artistic expression makes me wonder if this was more a need for content than one person’s need to tell this story.


A white man with short grey hair, he is wearing a grey vest and has tattoos on his left arm. He's sitting at a table and staring intently at the camera
Richard ‘Mac’ McKinney. Photo credit: Stranger at the Gate

Gazal


When I first heard about Stranger at the Gate I was definitely intrigued. The way Afghans are portrayed in the media has been something that I am constantly aware of, as our stories are not always shown in a respectful light. Not only that, but the portrayal of Islam in the media has often been shown in negative and controversial ways, especially in regards to racist and Islamophobic stereotypes regarding terrorism and extremism.


The portrayal of the Afghans, Bibi Bahrami and her husband Dr Saber Bahrami was done quite wholesomely and showed how they were full of nothing but love. The rest of the Islamic community in Indiana also seemed to promote nothing but kindness.


However, despite the entire show being only half an hour long, it was very uncomfortable to watch. The entire story of the former U.S. Marine Richard ‘Mac’ McKinney having secret plans to bomb an Islamic community centre in 2009, but all of a sudden having a change of heart felt incredibly awkward. Perhaps I’m biased, but there was something bizarre about watching everyone feel sympathy towards Mac, especially when his daughter casually says: “It’s still kind of hard for me to wrap around my head that my dad would have been known as a mass murderer”. It sent shivers down my spine, and I couldn’t bring myself to feel any sort of sympathy for him. There was not an ounce of anger or disdain over his potential actions, and it absolutely infuriated me, to the point where I couldn’t help but laugh at what I was watching. It all just seemed unnatural and sickly sweet. The people he wished to harm were no different to people who looked like me, or my family or friends who share the same backstories as those at the Islamic community centre in Indiana.


When I watched this show, seeing the reasons why Mac was behaving no different to the terrorists he claimed to despise never feels like repentance. Instead, it seems like a form of justification for his actions, as though he wasn’t aware or even sane when plotting what he was doing. The show also discusses Mac’s upbringing and that he served in the military in countries involved in the USA’s controversial ‘War on Terror’ such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where in his mind anyone remotely Muslim were seen as the enemy. This, coupled with the media and public outrage that sparked racism and Islamophobia during the early 2000s after Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Centre, is the context for Mac’s behaviour. PTSD is a real issue that has affected and ruined many people’s lives, and I wouldn’t deny that this is something Mac went through. However, I feel like the extreme nationalism that spurred from these events and hatred towards Muslims and minorities should have been addressed as much or even more so than his background and PTSD, especially since he talks about his daughter meeting a Muslim girl her age: “This little kid, a future terrorist, sat across from my daughter… I blew up”. To speak like that about a child, knowing he was also a parent himself (and portrayed as a devoted one too) was exasperating to witness.


Would I recommend anyone to watch this? It’s only 30 minutes long, so why not? The fact Mac became Muslim was something that intrigued me, as I myself have had difficulty with fully embracing religion, despite being an Afghan from a predominantly Islamic nation. It also felt honest when he said “to this day that still didn’t make no sense to me” when he refers to being hugged by Dr Bahrami. It reminded me that one of the problems in being human is that not everyone can naturally face or extend love towards what they fear, don’t know or hate. I presume this was intended as the main message of the short, but I’m not fully convinced if the filmmakers succeed in delivering that message.



A photo of a woman of Afghani descent, she is wearing a navy headscarf and grey shirt, sitting at a table and smiling at the camera
Bibi Bahrami. Photo credit: Stranger at the Gate

Laurel


When I sat down to watch Stranger at the Gate, I knew just enough about the subject matter to understand that it would be disquieting viewing. With that in mind, the approach the documentary takes - allowing its subjects to tell their story plainly, quietly and seemingly on their own terms, with no real overarching narration - is disarmingly relaxed.


Richard ‘Mac’ McKinney is very much front and centre here, and the film feels like a character study of him, particularly at first. This led me to wonder why the aggressor of this tale - a potential mass murderer - was being given so much attention, but as the film progresses this begins to make more sense. On the whole, McKinney comes across as a faithful narrator, painting an unsympathetic picture of himself as a traumatised and paranoid veteran harbouring deep prejudices after 25 years in the US Army. Some focus on the dehumanising way army superiors encouraged him to see ‘the enemy’ and the lack of support available to Mckinney following his service scans like a criticism of the army, but the sparse structure and limited run time of the documentary doesn’t allow for much depth. By McKinney and his family’s account, it was out of a misguided desire to protect his step daughter, Emily, that he began to fixate on Muslims in his small town community. The decision to include Emily’s own testimony despite her young age at the time provides a convincing second perspective on his delusional fear.


On the flip side of things, the accounts of Bibi and Dr Saber Bahrami, and Jomo Williams, congregants of the Mosque and community centre in Muncie, Indiana, are also introduced. We get to hear a little about their lives and experiences in the community, but not much of the documentary’s short run time is given over to this, which I think is a shame given their importance. This provides a build up to the documentary’s most powerful moment. Simultaneously, the documentary cuts between clips of them describing how they felt compelled to show warmth and compassion to a clearly emotional and disoriented McKinney the day that he entered their place of worship, and footage of McKinney describing how he had planned to scope out the building for a bomb attack that would have potentially claimed their lives. Stranger at the Gate doesn’t resort to any theatrical techniques to heighten the drama of this moment, nor does it need to - it is gut-wrenching.


The remainder of the film focuses on McKinney’s confession and his efforts at retribution, this change having been brought about by the kindness and acceptance of Bibi and her peers. In a deeply human way, it seems that these people recognised that he was harbouring a deep desperation for community and understanding. But intentionally or not, this story presents the uncomfortable fact that it was only with the demonstration of exceptional goodness that Bibi, Saber and Jomo’s lives were preserved - a moral position that nobody should be put in just to live safely.


By going on to convert to Islam, and becoming an active member of his religious community and an anti-hate campaigner, McKinney has certainly transformed his life for the better. But by his own account he does not forgive himself, and his family relationships seem to have suffered as a result of his former extremism. His local Islamic community are shown to have embraced him in a remarkable display of forgiveness, but will viewers of Stranger at the Gate feel the same? It’s hard to say, but I felt that the film showed no intention of wrapping things up neatly by telling us what to think.



Edited by Milly

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