‘Stranger at the Gate,’ an Oscar nominee on love after hate
When Richard McKinney was getting married last year, friends stepped in to help. Bibi Bahrami cooked Afghan dishes — from rice with carrots and raisins to chicken and beef — for the wedding guests. Her husband officiated the Islamic part of the ceremony.
At first glance, nothing seems unusual about that off-camera wedding scene — until you know the on-camera story of how McKinney and the Bahramis met. The short version is this: Angry and filled with hate for Muslims, the broad-shouldered, tattooed veteran once wanted to bomb the Bahramis’ Islamic Center of Muncie in Indiana and inflict mass casualties on its congregation.
The longer version of what followed, how the kindness he’s encountered from congregation members helped change not just his plans but his life’s course, is chronicled in “Stranger at the Gate.” The 30-minute movie is nominated for best documentary short film at the 95th Academy Awards, held this Sunday.
“We have been friends for years,” Bahrami, a former Afghan refugee and a grandmother of seven (the eighth is on the way), said of McKinney in an interview. “He’s like family at this point.”
McKinney acknowledged that their unlikely bond is probably “mind-boggling” to many. “This whole journey has been very surreal,” he said.
His is a story of second chances and transformation. It’s also one of love conquering hate, said “Stranger at the Gate” director Joshua Seftel.
“It’s easy to feel hopeless these days; when I saw this story, I thought, ‘Wow, maybe there is a reason to believe in humanity,’” Seftel said. “If these two people can be friends, then why can’t any of us?”
Seftel came across McKinney’s story when he was working on a documentary series titled the “Secret Life of Muslims,” featuring American Muslims of diverse backgrounds and seeking to shatter negative stereotypes.
“It’s easy to hate someone that we don’t know,” Seftel said. “The power of film and storytelling is that you can get to know someone through a film and it can change the way people think.”
The inspiration for that series, he said, was rooted in his own memories of antisemitism that he’s encountered and being called names as a Jewish kid.
“After 9/11, I saw that kind of hate toward Muslims and I just thought, ‘Maybe I can do something with my film work to try to help,’” he said.
A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2021 found that 53% of Americans have unfavorable views toward Islam.
McKinney was once one of those — fervently so.
The end of a long military career left him angry, bitter, feeling worthless and drinking too much. His “destiny” to die in combat and return home in a flag-draped coffin, a hero, never panned out. He would look at himself and wonder who he was.
He focused his hate on Muslims, some of whom, he said, had been his battlefield enemies when he was serving overseas.
“My plan was to detonate an IED,” or improvised explosive device, outside the Islamic center on a Friday when worshippers would be gathered, he said in the film. “I was hoping for at least 200 or more, dead, injured.”
He started going to the mosque in 2009, introducing himself as someone who wanted to learn about Islam.
“I didn’t trust them. … I figured they would have me in the basement with a sword to my throat,” he recalled in the film.
In reality, he said, he was welcomed and embraced by congregation members.
Bahrami, who viewers learn is a fan of country music and whose husband dubbed her “the Mother Teresa of the Muslim community,” recounted comforting McKinney and giving him attention. Eventually, he found the sense of belonging he so craved.
“I said I need to be Muslim,” McKinney said.
“Stranger at the Gate” is not the only nominee with a religious theme this year.
For instance, “Women Talking,” nominated for best picture, is based on a Miriam Toews novel that itself is based on a horrifically true story at a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. Men from that community were convicted of the rape of scores of women and girls. In the movie, survivors wrestle with whether to leave or stay in their insulated religious community, where they will be pressured to forgive the perpetrators.
Today, McKinney and Bahrami say they see the impact of the message behind their story in interactions with audiences after talks or screenings.
“One of the best compliments I’ve ever received was when somebody told me after seeing the film that ‘You have given me a lot to think about,’” McKinney said. “I want people to think because we live in a society where, unfortunately, there’s a lot of followers.”
Someone told him how hearing his story saved him as it made him think that everyone has a purpose to find.
Bahrami, who Seftel said shows up at screenings with cookies for the audience, has had people hug her. Some have come up to her with tears, told her she gave them hope and courage or asked if they could “borrow” her for their own community.
Others have posed a tough question: How did she forgive McKinney?
She said that when she heard, in disbelief, of the plans McKinney once harbored, she invited him for dinner and asked him what he was thinking.
“I’m a strong believer,” she said. “I think my faith is a big part of this forgiveness.”
Another aspect, she added, was the vulnerability she saw in him and how apologetic he was.
Bahrami recalled how when Seftel approached her to participate in the film, she was experiencing vulnerability of a different kind herself; she was in a coma. As she later considered his request while recovering, she had one thought:
“God gave me a second life,” she said, “and if I die again, the story could live.”
Associated Press writer Peter Smith contributed.
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