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Joshua Seftel and Malala Yousafzai on their Oscar-nominated short documentary


So often in this world, we define ourselves and others by our differences. We do this even when we lose sight of who we are.


RICHARD MCKINNEY: One time I had a discussion with a higher-ranking person about coping. Looked at me straight in the eye and says, Mac, you're on the range. You're shooting at a paper target. As long as you can look at them as anything but human, you won't have any problems. I said, oh, OK, that makes sense. Yeah, yeah. And that's what I did.

SIMON: That's former U.S. Marine Richard McKinney. He returned from fighting overseas to Muncie, Ind., where he saw Muslims in his own community and thought of people that he had been trained to see as the enemy. It was more than he could take, and he began to make lethal plans. But his extraordinary story is told in a short documentary, "Stranger At The Gate." It has been nominated for an Academy Award. We are joined now by the director, Joshua Seftel - Josh, thanks so much for being with us...

JOSHUA SEFTEL: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: ...And one of the producers of the film, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and female education activist Malala Yousafzai. Thank you for being with us.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: Thank you. Thank you so much.

SIMON: Josh, how did Rich McKinney's story come to your attention?

SEFTEL: Well, at the time, we were creating a series of short films about American Muslims. And we came across this story in a newspaper article, and we just couldn't believe it. You know, it was a story of a guy who wanted to commit mass murder, and when he went and came face-to-face with his would-be victims, they changed his mind through kindness, through love, through grace. And I felt like it was a story that we need to hear right now.

SIMON: Yeah. Malala, you know what it's like to be targeted by hate. You almost died in a Taliban attack for posing restrictions on female education in your native country, Pakistan. Did you see something in this story that particularly spoke powerfully to you?

YOUSAFZAI: The story ends so beautifully by showing us how hatred is defeated by love and kindness. Of course, I was also attacked by a person, and he was a Muslim. And I - you know, we came from the same community, but I was labeled as an outsider to him.

SIMON: And, Joshua Seftel, let me get you to talk about how you present the story because, of course, when we first meet Richard McKinney, he's talking about how he felt tightly wound. Every time he saw a Muslim in Muncie, he wanted to flinch inside. He felt his family was in danger. And he begins to make dire plans, doesn't he?

SEFTEL: Well, yes. He began to build a bomb because he wanted to commit mass murder. And he was talking with his 8-year-old daughter one day, and he expressed his hate toward Muslims. And his 8-year-old daughter looked at him askance and said, like, what are you talking about? Like, what's wrong with you? And I think he kind of looked in the mirror in that moment. And what he did was he actually went to the mosque right after that. He was going to try to find proof to justify his act of bombing this place. And that's what brought him face-to-face with the congregants of the mosque.

SIMON: Yeah.

SEFTEL: And they met him with kindness. And after that, he started coming back almost every day.

SIMON: Malala, I'm just wondering, as you watch the story of Richard McKinney and the wonderful Bahrami family - this is a family of Afghan refugees. They're prominent members of this mosque. I wonder, what do you think they discovered about each other?

YOUSAFZAI: Bibi has been this kind, welcoming person for her whole life.

SIMON: Bibi Bahrami is one of the founders of the mosque.

YOUSAFZAI: And she talks about the people that she has come across in her life for many, many years. They were really grateful that they were welcomed in the U.S. in the difficult times. And it was the local community in the U.S. that opened their hearts and their doors to them and gave them a chance to have a better life. And they want to now give that love to others. And they passed it on to Mac, and now Mac has taken this journey where he wants to pass it on to other people who might be going through tough and challenging times.

SIMON: This film is coming out and is nominated for an Oscar at a time when we keep hearing - and I wouldn't dispute it - that the divisions in our world have never been greater. Do you think that this story can somehow make a difference to people?

YOUSAFZAI: It is not just about a non-Muslim guy and a Muslim family. When you look deeply into it, I think it is about every community. There are ethnic differences as well. There are lingual differences as well. And unfortunately, wherever you are in the world, you do come across this hatred among groups because part of them is different than others.

SIMON: Josh Seftel, this is not just another film, is it?

SEFTEL: It is more than a film. The biggest moment so far has been when we showed the film to the members of the mosque, the people whose story we told. And when it was over, one guy in the back of the room stood up, and he said, I believe every American needs to see this film. We feel that that's our obligation now.

SIMON: Malala, forgive me for asking, are you going to the Oscars?

YOUSAFZAI: Yes, I will be at the Oscars. And I am thinking about what I'm going to wear, so that is taking a lot of my time.

SIMON: Malala Yousafzai, one of the producers, and Joshua Seftel, the director of the documentary "Stranger At The Gate" - nominated for an Academy Award. Thank you both very much for being with us.

YOUSAFZAI: Thank you.

SEFTEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.