Review: Stranger at the Gate
A U.S. Marine plots a terrorist attack on a small-town American mosque. His plan takes an unexpected turn when he comes face-to-face with the people he sets out to kill.
There are a lot of themes and social issues to track throughout Joshua Seftel’s multi-layered (and now Oscar nominated) documentary. We navigate a multi-strand story that weaves through racism, Islamophobia, the abandonment of veterans within the US military and how families struggle to survive amid these complex issues.
Seftel makes it abundantly clear that the theme of family is the lynchpin of this film. We open with a recollection of the film’s primary subject, former U.S. Marine Richard ‘Mac’ McKinney by his stepdaughter describing his dedication and devotion as a parent. These memories are set to a collection of family photos, underscoring her nostalgia, but imperceptibly unsettling us with a subtle shift in the tone of the score until the quick cuts between family photos begin to take on a much more sinister tone.
The key theme is continued throughout the introduction of the other main players in this unbelievably true story. Bibi Bahrami enters the narrative addressing the camera in her hijab while confessing her love for American country music. She and her husband, Dr. Saber Bahrami are introduced to the audience having fully embraced American culture. Not only that, but they are shown having embraced their community as well, with Dr. Bahrami regarding the patients in his clinic as family.
Similarly, establishing the backstory of Dana McKinney, wife of Richard McKinney, the film’s subject, focuses on her main goal of raising her daughter to be a strong and good person. This in turn leads to the story of how she met ‘Mac’ and how their family formed. There is a tonal nuance applied to this section of the film, as it very much has the feeling of recollections of a simpler, happier time, indirectly suggesting that there are darker turns to this story before explicitly alluding to them. The eventual introduction of ‘Mac’ himself heralds the introduction of the other key theme of the film – the lack of support for veterans in civilian life. It does not take long to realise that the nature of the second theme will threaten to unravel the fabric of the first.
‘Mac’ is the first person whose direct address to camera is less than comfortable. While the other character introductions are accompanied by b-roll or family pictures, ‘Mac’ is displayed as visibly troubled, with his interview punctuated by violent military archive footage. His backstory reveals a troubled childhood, a strained relationship with his father and a life as a marine that seemed motivated by good intentions but ultimately fed death and trauma to an already emotionally injured young man.
This is the kind of film that does its groundwork when it comes to character. The premise of the film is shocking enough but its full weight can really only be felt if we are intimately familiar with the real people that live through it. Using a direct address method of character storytelling forces us to look into the eyes of people who experienced love, pain, anger and terror. The film’s score by Ezinma provides a strong emotional compass. It effectively plays throughout the film without breaking, becoming a part of the film’s sensory landscape which, interestingly makes it easier to hide the tonal shifts in the music when the story turns call for it.
Seftel also takes his time in detailing how a Marine inches toward committing an act of domestic terrorism. Laying seeds that send chills down the spine of the viewer, we are exposed to military methodology that requires the soldiers not to think of their targets as human. Heartbreakingly, these aspects of ‘Mac’s training are revealed during his attempts to seek help in coping with the things he had to do. While this helps to make him an effective Marine, it leaves him with the difficult job of extracting himself from his methods of dehumanisation once he returns home and finds himself face-to-face with Muslim members of his community.
Seftel’s direction and Jeremy Medoff’s editing prove to be a potent combination in terms of finding the story from such a large pool of recollections. They are able to establish families and communities, weaving their stories into broader world events from Afghanistan in 1980 to New York in 2001 and finally converging in Muncie, Indiana in 2009 for the main events of the story.
The choice to establish the supporting characters of the story under the banner of family and community pays off when we finally get to meet ‘Mac’. His unabashed Islamophobia hits that much harder when we are able to contextualise it with the welcoming people that the story has introduced us to. It becomes impossible to buy into ‘Mac’s hatred or sense of threat as he continues to exist in violent abstractions as opposed to the specific and detailed glimpses into the lives of the people he shares a community with and intends to murder. Our being ahead of ‘Mac’ in terms of realising the humanity of the people he plans to harm serves as an excellent tool for building tension, thus keeping us firmly engaged and wondering how or if he will be diverted from his path.
Establishing the themes of family and community does more than show us what is put at risk by ‘Mac’s wayward mission. It is used to directly address the issues that had plagued ‘Mac’ from childhood and factor heavily into the ultimate resolution of the story.
Joshua Seftel and his crew succeed in visually documenting a truly remarkable story and do so with the kind of filmmaking and storytelling acumen that immerses the audience and maximises the catharsis of the journey that is embarked upon. This is a top tier example of documentary filmmaking and a benchmark for short film storytelling. Gripping, tragic and compelling, this film is an absolute must.
Studio: Smartypants Pictures/The New Yorker | Year: 2022 | Genre: Documentary | Duration: 29 Mins | Suitability: Mature
Cast: Richard McKinney, Saber Bahrami, Jomo Williams, Dana McKinney, Emily McKinney, Bibi Bahrami
Director: Joshua Seftel | Producers: Joshua Seftel, Conall Jones, Suzanne Hillinger, Jody Snider |