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Documentary Short

‘Stranger at the Gate’ tells story of ‘shared humanity’

Tufts alum Joshua Seftel returns to Boston to screen his documentary short — about a would-be mass murderer who later befriended the Muslim neighbors he sought to kill — at WBUR CitySpace Wednesday.

From "Stranger at the Gate."Karl Schroder

During more than two decades in the Marines, Richard “Mac” McKinney was “involved in so many deaths,” as he puts it. The experience of fighting the so-called global war on terror left him angry and desensitized. And when an injury ended his military career, he returned home to Indiana and began plotting to bomb his local mosque.

“One time I had a discussion with a higher-ranking person about coping,” McKinney said. That military official “looked at me straight in the eye and said, ‘Mac, you’re on the range, you’re shooting at a paper target. As long as you can look at them as anything but human, you won’t have any problems.’ … And that’s what I did.”


Richard "Mac" McKinney during his service as a U.S. Marine. Karl Schroder

McKinney recounts this period of his life in the documentary short “Stranger at the Gate,” which is showing Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at WBUR CitySpace, in an event co-presented by GlobeDocs. The film explores McKinney’s transformation from a vengeful man planning to murder his Muslim neighbors in Muncie, Ind., to an eventual president of the Islamic Center of Muncie, where he converted to Islam after community members embraced him with warmth when he first showed up filled with rage at their place of worship.

In an interview with the Globe, the film’s director, Joshua Seftel, said the story is a hopeful tale of the “shared humanity that connects us all.”

From left to right: Richard “Mac” McKinney, Jomo Williams, Dr. Saber Bahrami, and Bibi Bahrami. David Herbert

The documentary profiles not only McKinney but also some of his fellow Islamic Center of Muncie members, including Saber and Bibi Bahrami, a married couple who moved to Muncie in the 1980s as refugees from Afghanistan, and Jomo Williams, a convert to Islam whose family “goes way back” in the city.

“When we see a story like this, it reminds us that if Mac McKinney — would-be domestic terrorist and mass murderer — can be friends with the woman who he planned to murder, and she can forgive him and be friends with him … anything is possible,” said Seftel, a Tufts University alum.


"Stranger at the Gate" director Joshua Seftel.

“Stranger at the Gate” is the latest installment in Seftel’s Emmy Award-nominated series of short films, “The Secret Life of Muslims,” which seeks to combat Islamophobia with filmmaking.

Seftel, who is Jewish, told the Globe that he experienced a lot of antisemitism growing up in upstate New York, where people would hurl slurs and pennies at him, and even a rock through his window. His own experiences of discrimination inspired him to fight Islamophobia, he said.

With “Stranger at the Gate,” Seftel said, “I hope that it changes the lives of some people who see the film.”

"Stranger at the Gate" director Joshua Seftel and director of photography Karl Schroder with the McKinney family. Conall Jones

The New Yorker documentary won a Special Jury Mention for best documentary short at this year’s Tribeca Festival.

After Wednesday’s screening of the film at WBUR CitySpace, NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid will moderate a panel discussion with Seftel, McKinney, and Bibi Bahrami. Doors for the event open at 5:30 p.m.


At WBUR CitySpace, Sept. 21, 6:30 p.m.,