Documentary - Stranger at the Gate

Up for the Best Documentary Short Film award at this week's Oscar nominations, Jon B took a look at Stranger at the Gate...

Stranger at the Gate is a timely release. Joshua Seftel’s docu-short tells the story of Richard McKinney, a former man-at-arms with twenty-five years behind him, who plots in secrecy to bomb a local Muslim centre following the events of 9/11. Ultimately, he abandons animosity once he gets to know the occupants and their faith. The documentary emphasises those affected by his actions as much as the subject himself, and – considering current cultural tensions – the overarching message of de-radicalisation via compassion, not uncompromising moral purity, is deserving of amplification.

However, its delivery of said message can lack discretion. It possesses generic documentary tropes – slick interview lighting, vapid B-roll, heavy-handed string music – that feel superficial at best and tasteless at worst. There are numerous moments where minimalism would be ten-fold more effective; we don’t need an orchestra to insinuate how we should be feeling. A tale of hatred to remorse – how a narrow mindset thwarts the conscience – speaks emotional spades in itself.

Stranger at the Gate could also do more to analyse its themes. McKinney thinks the Quran is a text of hostility, but converts to Islam in due time, yet the documentary never elaborates what elements of the faith changed his mind – arguably one of the most important things it could do to educate people. All we see is the hospitality of its followers; there must be more to McKinney’s conversion than that. Further quotes like “my country is done with me, but I’m not done with it” could potentially open conversation to the treatment of veterans and the effects of gung-ho militarism, but this is never explored. As is, the documentary can’t seem to decide whether it’s matter-of-fact about its events, or pulling us in a specific direction; the aforementioned production tactics suggest the latter, but it merely highlights melodrama. There’s a multi-thematic hot-potato in Stranger at the Gate, yet it's incurious about the “whys”, maybe to escape political-bias at the cost of richer discussion, or perhaps it’s a consequence of economical run-time.

It could be thrice as effective given further depth, but Stranger at the Gate is still earnest in its subject matter and worthy of your thirty-minutes. The documentary ends on clarifying McKinney’s new purpose: travelling from state-to-state, providing lectures to prevent reactionary violence. I’d imagine said nuances are found in such.

The film's trailer is below and you can watch the full 30 minute documentary, courtesy of the New Yorker YouTube site here.

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