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'Stranger at the Gate' explores how a potential tragedy became a powerful act of kindness


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Among the slate of films that could win an Oscar on Sunday, one new documentary looks at how a potentially deadly encounter led to a surprising and inspiring ending.

I talked to the duo behind the film "Stranger at the Gate," as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

What if people responded to hatred with kindness and acceptance? Could that approach change lives, or even save them? The film "Stranger at the Gate" explores what happens when a man ready to commit mass murder is welcomed by the very same people he was targeting.

"Stranger at the Gate" was just nominated for an Academy Award. It is produced by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and directed by Joshua Seftel, who both join me now.

Thank you so much for joining us.

And, first and foremost, congratulations.

Malala, I will start with you. How did you learn the news of the Oscar nomination, and what did you think?

Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize Winner: So, I have entered the world of production now, and I receive requests on most every day.

And when I got the chance to watch the documentary "Stranger at the Gate," I remember I was in my living room watching it on my laptop together with my husband, and I was just completely moved and inspired by this story. And I knew that it has to be shared with everybody.

So I jumped in and I said, I want to support this movie. And I'm so proud to be part of it.

Amna Nawaz: Joshua, this is a true story. We have to stress this to people. It's about a former U.S. Marine named Mac McKinney. He suffers from PTSD. He carries some incredibly hateful Islamophobic beliefs back to his hometown of Muncie, Indiana, and decides he is going to bomb the local mosque.

Tell us what happens from there? And how did you first hear about this story?

Joshua Seftel, Director, "Stranger at the Gate": I heard about this story. We found it in a newspaper article.

And the first thing we thought was, how can this be true? Because the story is just incredible and inspiring. And what happens is, he goes to the mosque to do reconnaissance, because he's planning to bomb it. He's already built the bomb.

And when he arrives at the mosque, he is welcomed by the congregants there. And they meet him with compassion and kindness.

Mac McKinney, "Stranger at the Gate": He hugged my leg. This guy doesn't know me. Hugged my leg. That was pretty heavy. And they don't even know the truth.

Joshua Seftel: And, in fact, he starts coming back to the mosque on a regular basis because these people are so nice to him. In fact, ultimately, he becomes president of the mosque.

And we just found that the story is just so timely. You know, in a moment when division is at a fever pitch and hate crimes are happening, to find a story that is — has a beautiful message and a beautiful outcome is just something that I personally needed this story and wanted to share it with others because I found it to be a very hopeful message.

Amna Nawaz: In fact, a lot of your work focuses on this issue about overcoming hatred. Tell me a little bit about that.

Joshua Seftel: Yes.

So, when I was a little boy in Upstate New York, I faced antisemitism. You know, kids called me names, and someone threw a rock through the front window of our home. And those memories, they stuck with me. And after I became a filmmaker, and then 9/11 happened, I saw my Muslim friends facing a similar kind of hate.

And I thought, as a filmmaker, maybe I can do something in some small way to help. And so, since then, for the last eight years, really, I have been making films with my team about American Muslim stories in order to shatter the negative stereotypes that we see of Muslims.

Amna Nawaz: Malala, of course, so many people know your story so well, surviving against all odds when you were targeted by hatred, right? The Taliban tried to kill you by shooting you for your education activism.

You not only survived. You thrived. You have become one of the most recognized faces on the global stage in this advocacy for women and girls. What is it about this story that you think is particularly important at this moment in time?

Malala Yousafzai: We all know that extremism and violence are prominent.

And it's really difficult to address those issues, because, oftentime, the reason behind the violence and the extremism is the dehumanization of a certain individual, or a group of people, or a religious group, or an ethnic group. But, at the same time, when we connect with people, we see them in person or through our TV screens, and we realize that they are just the same as us.

They have the same moments of joy and sadness. They have the same family life. They have kids. They share meals together. We connect with them, and we realize that we are all human.

Bibi Bahrami, Co-Founder, Islamic Center of Muncie: He didn't know anything better. That's exactly what he said.

"Sister Bibi, what if — if I had met you, meeting someone like you, if I had that much understanding, I would have never thought about this."

Mac McKinney: You showed me the right way. You showed me what true humanity is about.

Malala Yousafzai: What Mac was planning to do, that could have caused such a huge damage. It could have costed so many lives. But it was the act of kindness that changed the whole story.

And it was really the willingness of Bibi Bahrami and her family to welcome Mac and to show him that kindness and to give him a chance to get to know them. And it was also the willingness of Mac to actually know the people.

Amna Nawaz: Joshua, we are speaking at a time of rising antisemitism, of anti-LGBTQ action. We know, 20 years after 9/11, Muslims still face discrimination and attacks.

And the kind of, quite frankly, domestic terrorism that Mac was planning is on the rise here in America. And a lot of folks will say, this is asking a lot of people who are feeling unsafe and who need protection, that they should open their hearts and their homes to people who might wish them harm.

What would you say to that?

Joshua Seftel: The message of this film, for me, is to ask everybody to look at themselves and say, what can I do? What can I do to help build bridges in our society, to help connect with people that maybe seem different from us, or look different, or believe in something different than we do, or vote for a different political candidate than we do?

Because I think that, right now, we live in a time where we have separated ourselves. And I think, to me, this film is saying, let's reconsider that, because there's a power in connecting with people. And, in this film, we see that it actually saved lives.

Amna Nawaz: The documentary film is "Stranger at the Gate," directed by Joshua Seftel and executive produced by Malala Yousafzai.

Thank you to both of you for joining us. And good luck at the Oscars.

Joshua Seftel: Thank you.

Malala Yousafzai: Thank you.

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