His short documentary on a man's journey from Islamophobe to Muslim is up for an Academy Award
While working on the film Stranger at the Gate, director Josh Seftel, A90, experienced something unlike anything he’d ever seen in his couple decades of filmmaking. “A film crew typically works for 10 to 12 hours,” he explained. “With this film, each day that we hit the 12-hour mark, we’d say it was time to stop and, invariably, the crew would say, ‘No! We're going to keep going!’ They said the story was just too important to stop working on it.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences clearly agrees: it has nominated Stranger at the Gate for an Academy Award in the best documentary short category.
A story of transcending differences, the film chronicles the journey of Richard “Mac” McKinney from Islamophobe to Muslim. McKinney, a white former Marine and would-be mass murderer, plots to blow up a mosque in Muncie, Indiana, but changes course when he is embraced by the mosque’s congregants. Made to feel a part of the community, he abandons his plan and becomes a congregant himself.
Seftel and his crew—which included three fellow Jumbos: executive producers Eric Nichols, A11, and Anna Rowe, A12, and associate producer Avi Bond, A21—watched the Oscar nomination announcements together, knowing that five titles would be named and facing diminishing hope as the first four were called with no mention of their film. When the announcer finally said “Stranger at the Gate,” the overwhelming feeling was excitement, Seftel said—with a lot of relief mixed in. “The message of the film is so timely and urgent,” he explained. “Having an Oscar nomination gives us the platform we need to reach a bigger and broader audience.”
Tufts Now caught up with Seftel to hear more about his career in film, his time on the Hill, and his hopes for his Oscar-nominated documentary.
How did you discover the story that you tell in the film, and how did you know that this was a story you wanted to share?
Josh Seftel: My production company, Smartypants, was working on a series of films called Secret Lives of Muslims, in which we were trying to tell stories that would shatter negative stereotypes of Muslim Americans. I was drawn to that project because I grew up in upstate New York, where I faced a lot of antisemitism when I was young. That kind of treatment and the memories of how it felt always stuck with me, and when I saw Muslim friends facing discrimination after 9/11, I felt a connection to them and knew I wanted to make films that would stand up to such discrimination.
Stranger at the Gate came out of that project. We saw a newspaper article about Mac, and we just knew we had to pursue it. It felt like a story everyone needs right now—one that gives hope, that addresses the divisions we’re seeing in our world today, that counteracts the hate we’re seeing. This story is like an antidote to all the division and hatred.
Richard “Mac” McKinney, the film's leading subject. Photo: Karl Schroder
Were there particular challenges you faced in making it?
The biggest challenge for me was making sure that the members of the Islamic Center in Muncie would be happy with the film. Or, at least, that’s what I worried about the most. We did a screening of it early on, with 80 people gathered in the basement of the center. When the film ended, one guy stood up and said, “We need to make sure that every American sees this film,” and that gave me a huge sense of relief. At the same time, though, it also gave me a sense of obligation; the feeling was, “Okay, yes, now we have to do that.” That’s the challenge now—how do we make sure people will see this and that the message of the film will resonate with people?
That must be a question that’s part of every filmmaking endeavor.
Yes. The question is always, “How do we get beyond the echo chamber?” When it comes to documentaries, often the people who watch them are the people who already agree with the message; there’s a confirmation bias. And I think it’s rare that our films reach the people that maybe need to see them the most.
I do feel like that’s beginning to happen with this film. It’s had more than a million views, and it was talked about twice on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” one of the most popular podcasts in the world. We feel like we’re reaching beyond the usual circles with this story, and that makes me really happy.
How did you get started as a filmmaker?
That story begins at Tufts, actually. When I was there, I worked in the audio-visual center of what was, at the time, in Wessel Library. No one ever came to the center, so I would just sit there and watch movies. That experience got me interested in film.
Then, when I was a senior, one of my mentors—Seymour Simches, who was an icon at Tufts—announced that he was retiring. I decided to make a film about him, and the film was shown at the library. A lot of professors came, and afterwards one of them approached me, told me her husband was starting a nonprofit to help Romanian children, and asked whether I’d be interested in making a film to help get the word out about the nonprofit.
I made that film, and it was shown on public television, and the broadcast led to the adoption of thousands of abandoned Romanian children. That’s when I began to understand the potential of film to have an impact.
What have you carried with you from your time on the Hill into your career?
Despite my interest in film, I didn’t think I’d make my career in it. I was pre-med and a French literature major at Tufts. My plan was to go to med school, join Doctors Without Borders, and take care of humanity.
After I made the film in Romania, I thought maybe I’ll just do one more before I go to med school. And then, maybe one more. You know what? I still haven’t gone to med school.
What I realized, I guess, is that there’s a way in which making films can also help take care of humanity. And that’s what I took with me from the Hill—I feel like everything we learned at Tufts was related to how to make the world a better place. That’s what I’m trying to do.