Alum’s Oscar-nominated film shows transformative power of kindness

Author: Jamie Oppenheim
February 24, 2023
photo of Conall Jones and Joshua Seftel
Photo Credit: Producer Conall Jones (left) and director Joshua Seftel's film "Stranger at the Gate" was nominated for an Oscar.

‘Stranger at the Gate’ is screening in San Rafael Feb. 28

San Francisco State University alumnus Conall Jones (B.A., ’05) was floored when he learned the short documentary film he produced with the production company Smartypants was nominated for an Oscar. “Stranger at the Gate” is his proudest accomplishment to date, but the film wasn’t getting critical recognition at first. It wasn’t accepted into the Sundance, Telluride or SXSW film festivals, he says. But Jones wasn’t looking for recognition — what he wanted was people to see the film because of its powerful message.

“Stranger at the Gate,” a 2022 film executive produced by Nobel laureate and education activist Malala Yousafzai and released by The New Yorker, isn’t what it seems. It starts off like a true crime story, with hints about a terrorist plot and a possible suspect. “This was intentional so we would have the widest appeal as far of viewers. We wanted to draw people into the story,” Jones said. But the story is so much more than that. “It ends with positivity and love,” he added.

­­­The film is about former Marine Richard “Mac” McKinney, who returned home from service in Afghanistan to Muncie, Indiana. He suffered from PTSD and saw Muslims as targets, something he learned in combat. Fueled by fear and hatred, he began making plans to bomb the local mosque. When he went to the Islamic Center of Muncie to gather proof that they were dangerous people, he was welcomed with kindness. Not only did McKinney drop his terror plot, he ended up joining the community and converting to Islam.

“The message of the film is so great, especially with so much division and hatred out there,” Jones said. “This film is a lesson in expanding your horizons as far as people you interact with.”

Eventually, the film had a successful film festival run, winning major awards at Tribeca Film Festival, Indy Shorts and others, which qualified it for the Oscars, Jones says. And now he's promoting the film at theaters across the country in the lead-up to the Oscars.

He isn’t typically involved in the promotion of films. As a producer, his role is mostly behind the scenes helping to plan and strategize shoots abd build out stories with directors and production executives. For “Stranger at the Gate” he mapped out all the logistics for the shoot, did pre-interviews with sources and even did on-camera interviews. After filming wrapped, he stayed on to help director Joshua Seftel edit the film and craft the narrative.

The School of Cinema alumnus says he learned how to be deliberate about his shoots while at San Francisco State. “Because we were limited in the film supplies we had ... you had to plan everything out,” he said. “Every shot had to be storyboarded and there had to be a reason for taking that shot. Every shot was $5 because film processing wasn't cheap.”

He admits he was a mediocre student until he took an introductory course on documentary film with Professor Greta Snider during his sophomore year. “My grades went from B’s and C’s to straight A’s my final year because I kept doing as many documentary-related classes as I could,” he said. “Academically, I got much stronger because I found my passion.”

After college, it took Jones a few years to find his footing in the documentary film and TV world. Once he moved to New York City he started freelancing. Now, he has producing credits on several major projects, including Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9,” Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!” and Netflix's “Worn Stories.”

“I’ve worked on tons of documentaries that, if you include all of the TV episodes I’ve worked on, it’s probably 60 to 70 pieces,” he said. “But this film is my favorite because of its message. I feel like the message can transcend audiences like no other film can. ... I would like everyone in the U.S. to see this film.”

Learn more about SF State’s School of Cinema.