Among the nominees for Best Documentary Short at this year’s 95th Academy Awards is Joshua Seftel’s Stranger at the Gate (executive produced by Malala Yousafzai).
Produced by the team at Smartypants, the film traces the story of Richard “Mac” McKinney, a former US Marine whose plan to bomb a Muncie, Indiana mosque was cut short by the friendships he formed with its congregants. The story traverses important issues like PTSD, Islamophobia, and the power of human connection in the face of corrosive hate.
We interviewed Smartypants producers, Suzanne Hillinger and Conall Jones on the making of the film.
Stranger at the Gate follows Richard “Mac” McKinney, a Marine who, after serving multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, returns to his home of Muncie, Indiana and hatches a plan to bomb his local mosque. That is, until a preliminary visit to the mosque—a reconnaissance mission in advance of the attack—takes an unexpected turn: its congregants befriend him.
Slowly but surely, McKinney turns away from hatred and Islamophobia and reconnects with his own humanity, eventually serving as the president of the Islamic Center of Muncie.
The idea for Stranger at the Gate formed when Seftel read about McKinney and his intended attack in a newspaper. Curious to get the perspectives of the mosque congregants and the rest of the McKinney family, Seftel and his production crew headed to Muncie began conducting interviews in August 2021. Says Suzanna Hillinger, a producer on the film, “what was missing was really the community that helped to shift [McKinney’s] perspective.” Stranger at the Gate premiered on September 14, 2022 via YouTube and The New Yorker.
Seftel is a longtime documentarian who received his first Emmy nomination at 22 years old for the film Lost and Found (1992), which looked at Romania’s orphaned children. He has directed multiple other scripted and non-scripted TV movies, television series, and films such as Queer Eye (2003-2007), War, Inc. (2008), and The Home Team (2014).
Seftel founded Smartypants in 2014 to “craft stories that connect with people.” In the nearly 10 years since Smartypants was founded, the company has received numerous awards and accolades: a National Emmy, a Critics’ Choice, an ADDY, a Clio, a Webby, and even a James Beard. But Stranger at the Gate is Smartypants’—and Seftel’s—first Oscar nomination.
Ahead of its Oscar nomination, Stranger at the Gate has received accolades from the Breckenridge Film Festival, the Indy Shorts International Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival, the Virginia Film Festival, and the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. Says Conall Jones, a producer on the film, “Now there’s so much press about it, people are seeing it, it’s in theaters…this [Oscar nomination] has really elevated the film and its message.”
Wrapbook is thrilled to celebrate the continued success of Stranger at the Gate, and our client Smartypants, Seftel, Malala, and the rest of his filmmaking colleagues. We wish them the best of luck!
You can watch the film via The New Yorker.
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