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Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker shares story of Muncie mosque members accepting hate-filled Marine veteran

Joshua Seftel, who came across the story from a newspaper article, traveled to the seat of Delaware County to meet and film the congregants and Marine's family.

MUNCIE, Ind. — Jamie Lee Curtis, Brendan Fraser and Michelle Yeoh are all first-time Oscar nominees this year. Also a first-time nominee? Documentary filmmaker Joshua Seftel, with his short film, "Stranger at the Gate."

The 30-minute film is nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 95th Academy Awards, which take place Sunday, March 12 at 8 p.m. ET.

"Stranger at the Gate" tells the story of Richard "Mac" McKinney, a former Marine who developed PTSD and a hatred toward Muslims during his time serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. While planning an attack at the Islamic Center of Muncie, the members of the mosque greet him with kindness and compassion, accepting him as one of their own.

"It's a story with a scary premise, and it's a story that ends with a lot of hope and positivity," Seftel said.

Seftel, who came across the story from a newspaper article, traveled to the seat of Delaware County in 2021 to meet and film the congregants and McKinney's family.

"Muncie, Indiana, is a very interesting place, and the people in this story were all Muncie residents. I think they're heroes, they're an inspiration," Seftel said. "To me, it's a microcosm of what our country could be if we could find a way to come together the way that these people in Indiana did."

"Stranger at a Gate" screened at the Indy Shorts International Film Festival, where it won Grand Prize for Documentary Short, which, in turn, qualified the short film for Oscar consideration.

Credit: Heartland Film
"Stranger at the Gate" won the ​Grand Prize for Documentary Short at the 2022 Indy Shorts International Film Festival.

In February, Seftel joined his fellow nominees at the awards body's annual luncheon — with executive producer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai as his special guest.

"We thought about who would be the perfect messenger, the perfect ambassador for this story, and we made a list of people, and the first person at the top of our list was Malala," Seftel said. "She loved the film and came on board. Since then, she's been our champion, and she speaks about the film all over, and she'll be with us at the Oscars."

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Malala Yousafzai, left, and Joshua Seftel pose with a miniature Oscar statuette for a portrait at the 95th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.

And unfortunately, "Stranger at the Gate" is just as relevant today in its message to combat hate crimes, with 106 mass shootings so far in 2023, according to Gun Violence Archive.

"When Bibi Bahrami, the hero of the film, when she finds out, even today, that someone doesn't like Muslims or doesn't like her, the first thing she does is she invites them over to her house for dinner, and tries to find a connection with them, tries to find that shared humanity that we all have," Seftel said. "To me, what this film is about is us reclaiming that. It's about us starting to talk to each other again, finding connections with people that we may think we share that much in common with."

"Stranger at the Gate" is available to stream for free on The New Yorker's YouTube channel.

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