Films can be a powerful force of activism. Films are a powerful medium for activism because they can effectively communicate complex ideas and emotions through storytelling, elicit strong emotional responses from viewers, reach a wide audience through various platforms, and influence cultural norms and public opinion on social and political issues. This ability to inspire, educate, and move people makes films an effective tool for promoting social change.
Inspired by the USA Today article, the film tells the story of Afghan refugees Bibi and Saber Bahrami, members of the Islamic Center of Muncie, and U.S. Marine Mac McKinney who has secret plans to bomb their community center. McKinney's plan takes an unexpected turn as he comes face to face with members of the community center. The story is about hope, kindness, and the transformation that can happen when we take the time to understand and empathize with those around us who we deem as different.
Along with executive producer Malala Yousafzai, director Joshua Seftel has been using filmmaking to combat Islamophobia. Stranger at the Gate is his latest effort in his activism against prejudices against communities in the U.S.
Seftel sat down with No Film School over Zoom to talk about the process behind making this Oscar-nominated short documentary, and what his hopes for the future of activism will look like in film.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Congratulations on getting an Oscar nom for a Stranger at the Gate. Can tell me a little bit about how you came to the story and when you knew you wanted to turn it into a short doc?
Joshua Seftel: For me, the story started when I was a little boy growing up in upstate New York and I faced anti-Semitism. Kids called me names. Someone threw a rock the size of a brick through the front window of our house. Those things stayed with me. After I became a filmmaker and 9/11 happened, I saw similar things happening to my Muslim friends. I felt a connection to them. That's when I started setting out to make films about American Muslim stories and creating a platform for those kinds of stories. This film is part of that.
When I came across an article about this story that's at the heart of Stranger at the Gate that was an article in USA TODAY, and it was sort of an obscure article. We were like, "Oh, my God. This story is unbelievable." We reached out to the US Marine and to the congregants of the mosque, Bibi Bahrami and Saber Bahrami, who are a married couple that founded the mosque. Once we connected with them, they're just such incredible people, all of them, we just knew we had a great story here.
NFS: I think it's a story that resonates with a lot of people in America. We are all a melting pot, yet there are people who want to shut us out because our system has told them that this is what we should do. When you're looking at this narrative, how does the structure come to you? And what do you think about structure when you're editing or when you're behind the camera?
Seftel:I feel like a lot of documentaries, even some of my own probably, are preaching to the choir. I'm always thinking about how we get beyond that. Especially with a message like this one which is I think so relevant to this moment and relevant to people. I think there are a lot of people who need to see this story and I think it could have the potential to change the way they think. So, it's like how do you get to them? I think one of the ways is by telling a story in a certain fashion.
In this case, we created a storyline that has a lot of twists and turns and surprises and keeps you hooked. It never lets up. And that was by design because we want people to share this and tell people like, "Oh, you got to see this story. It's great. It's got really crazy surprises in it." We don't just want to preach to the choir again. We want to give people a story that's a crazy ride and maybe ends up in a place they didn't expect. We structured it with a lot of twists and turns and this big reveal. And I mean, some people have said it's kind of a little bit like a true crime story but without the crime. And I like that. We definitely harnessed some of the techniques of true crime but I think for maybe a bigger purpose.
That was really fun to play around with that and to find ways to surprise the viewer and keep them on their toes. People have said like, "Oh, my God. I forgot to breathe," or, "I just never saw that coming." That's really exciting for us because I think that the way we're delivering this message is important.
'Stranger at the Gate'Credit: Karl SchroderNFS: I want to tip my hat to you because the story is very lean, but it is a longer short, which is great because you never feel like it's too long. You're getting all the information you need. What is your strategy behind making a strong, lean narrative like this?
Joshua Seftel:When we set out, we thought we were making a short, and then this has happened before, but we get in the edit bay and it's like the first cut is 50 minutes long. We definitely considered [making it a feature] for a minute. Then, we started to play around and edited it down. It got shorter and shorter, and it got tighter. The story became more compact. We really liked the way it was working because there was no wasted space in this one. It's just so tight. I think that's exciting. There are a lot of films out there that are too long. I hope this one isn't one of them. I don't think it is.
NFS: Short films are such a funny medium to work in because you have some that are five minutes long and then you have some that are 45 minutes long. So it's a very strange medium that allows a lot of flexibility.
Seftel:I know. It is odd that those are both considered short films.
NFS: What kind of freedoms do you find working in a short film medium?
Seftel: A couple of things. I mean, first of all, it's much easier to get a short off the ground. You don't need as much money typically. What I like about it is sometimes there's just some story we really want to tell and we don't want to wait for a year or two years to get the funding in place and maybe the story would be over before then. It's just easier to launch a short because you typically don't need the same amount of financial resources.
The other thing is that shorts can really be shared around. I mean, these days watching a feature is a big investment. Somehow it seems even longer than it used to watch a feature. You need to have a block of time. And so I think just it's fun to give people a short to watch because they get excited when you're like, "Oh, and it's only a half hour." And people watch it. I mean, this film has gotten so many views. It's just been really exciting to watch it sort of catch fire.
'Stranger at the Gate'Credit: Karl SchroderNFS: It's very interesting that short documentaries do so well, especially in our current culture where we don't have the longest attention spans. We like to have something quick and concise that delivers the information that needs to be delivered and also has a full narrative that moves us.
Seftel: Totally. I feel like there are so many beautiful documentary shorts, but they usually often don't try to pack too much in. But in this case, with this film, we crammed so much into the story. It's a full meal. We joke around that this is... Sometimes shorts are like an appetizer, but this one's like a full four-course or three-course meal.
NFS: It truly exists for the medium, and that's beautiful in itself. But I wanted to go back to a statement you made earlier where people were kind of commenting on this as being a version of a true crime documentary. How do you feel about that comment? What were your expectations for this short being out in the world?
Seftel:I take it as a compliment because we were playing around with that. Not everyone's saying that, but some people are. Our goal was to get people to watch this. That's why we made it. To get people who maybe wouldn't ordinarily maybe even watch a documentary [to watch]. For example, in recent days, I know that Joe Rogan has been talking about our film on his show. I think part of it is because of the way we told the story. The fact that Joe Rogan is talking to his millions of viewers, many of whom are the kind of people we would love to see this film, it's such a win. So we feel like it's working. Our goals are being met, which is very exciting.
NFS: What camera did you use for this documentary?
Seftel:Primarily, we used an [ARRI] AMIRA. Then, we had some additional cameras that we used as well, but the primary camera was an AMIRA.
NFS: Do you feel like that specific camera helps you stay nimble and stay flexible in following the story and being quick on your feet?
Seftel:I do. I think it's a good doc camera, yeah, but for a lot of this film, actually, the shots were designed and so we didn't always need to be nimble. But still, we were moving really fast because we didn't have a ton of budget to burn through. We were trying to do a lot each day and be really efficient. That camera is easy to work with.
Bibi Bahrami in 'Stranger at the Gate'Credit: Karl SchroderNFS: What was one challenge for you in this short film? What lesson from that challenge did you learn that you'll take with you into your next project?
Seftel:I would say, one of the biggest challenges was after we finished the film. And I feel like anytime I make a film or probably most people anytime they make a film, it's like you want to make sure you got it right, you want to make sure that the people who opened their lives to you, that you did them right. When we finished the film, we brought it to the Islamic Center of Muncie to show it to the congregation. We screened it in the basement of the Islamic Center. There were 80 people there. When it was finished and the lights came on, I wasn't sure what people would think. Then, one guy stood up and he raised his hand and he said, "I just want to say I hope that every American can see this film somehow."
When I heard that, I felt two things. One was a sense of relief, like, "Okay. They like the film. We did it right." Then, the second thing was, "Okay. Now we have an obligation to... We have to make sure this happens."
That is a challenge, I think, but it's going well. I mean, having this Oscar nomination is a huge opportunity for us to reach an even bigger audience than we were already reaching. It's really exciting to know that this film and its message are really getting out there in a way because I think the message is really timely. I do think that the heroes in this story, the congregants of the mosque who just showed incredible traits of kindness, compassion, grace, and forgiveness, are people we can all learn from right now. They're showing us a way to be in the world that I think could really help make our world better right now. We need those things. We need to start showing those traits more. I think all of us do.
NFS: Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are looking to make their first documentary short?
Seftel: In some ways, it might be good to think of it as almost like writing. When you're writing, it's good to start to put some stuff down on paper and think about it and make sense of it and then build off of that. It's the same thing with starting a doc short. If you can, just go out and start shooting a little bit and start, and you can learn from that and you can start to see, "Oh, who are the best characters? And where is the story? And what is the story? And is it what I thought it was going to be?" And you can start to tell that from shooting. If you have the luxury to do that, I would say that's often a good place to start because sometimes when you go in with too good a plan, it's hard to pivot and to really make sure you're going where the story goes and finding the story where it is.
Behind the scenes on 'Stranger at the Gate'Credit: Karl SchroderNFS: Is there anything that you would like to mention that I didn't touch on in our conversation?
Seftel:I would say another thing we're really excited about is that Malala [Yousafzai], is our executive producer on the film. We feel like she is perfect. In the whole world, if you had to pick one person to be the champion or the ambassador for this film, I would say it would be Malala. We really feel so fortunate that she's part of our team and that she's out there talking about the film and doing screenings and sharing it with the world. We just think it's such an incredible synergy and opportunity for the film to, again, reach people.