Piercing the protective barrier around Charleston's local communities can be difficult. Those of us "from off" have to work a little harder to gain the public's trust, and rightfully so, especially when it comes to marginalized groups used to being misrepresented. That's why it's surprising that Brian Ivie, a white guy from Orange County, Calif., is the director behind Emanuel, a documentary about the 2015 slaying of nine people by a white supremacist at a Wednesday night Bible study in a historically black church in Charleston.
Ivie became a Christian at 22 during the making of his first film, a 2014 doc about a pastor who takes in abandoned children in South Korea. His newfound faith, he says, is what allowed him to connect with Mother Emanuel survivors and their families. The 90-minute documentary will have a limited release on June 17, the tragedy's fourth anniversary, and June 19. NBA superstar Stephen Curry and actresses Mariska Hargitay and Viola Davis (a South Carolina native) are listed as executive producers, but according to Ivie, producers' shares of the profits (if any) will be distributed to families and survivors through the National Christian Foundation. We spoke to Ivie about finding out about the shooting, interviewing the families, and his association with Focus on the Family, a religious anti-gay group.
City Paper: Where were you when you first heard the news?
Brian Ivie: I'd just gotten married in June 2015. My wife and I were on our honeymoon when we heard about what happened in Charleston. I remember standing at the balcony and looking out at the beautiful sunrise, and this beautiful morning collided with this very tragic morning. My wife was watching the bond hearing. She turned to me and said nine people were shot at a Bible study, but nine people were forgiving the murderer. I looked at her and said, "I hope whoever tells that story doesn't skip that part."
CP: How soon into the news cycle did you start thinking about getting involved?
BI: As a documentarian, my conviction was to wait, so I didn't go in and try to turn this into some opportunity. That felt entirely inappropriate and disrespectful. I waited an entire year, until the one-year memorial, to start to reach out and interact with the family. In 2016, I took my team out to Charleston to film the memorial services because I knew they'd do that and do a march.
CP: When did you first touch base with the family members and survivors featured in the film?
BI: I met a pastor from New York. He and I linked up. We basically made an invitation to all the families to get together at Sticky Fingers and hear our heart for the project. We wanted to show the world where God was in all of this. That really started a conversation they wanted to have.
CP: Who showed up to the restaurant?
BI: Twenty family members. I was surprised they all came. In the film, all 10 affected families — the nine and then Polly Sheppard [a survivor who made the 911 call after the shooting] — they're all represented in the film. Everyone from Clementa [Pinckney, a state senator and the church's senior pastor who died in the shooting] to Jennifer [Pinckney's widow], to Malcolm Graham [a former North Carolina lawmaker and the brother to victim Cynthia Hurd] and Anthony Thompson, every family has a representative, someone who was very close to them.
- Brian Ivie
CP: It's interesting that you're the one who's telling this story. Not just as an outsider to the area, but as a white man. Do you think your faith-based approach is what allowed you to gain the families' trust?
BI: It was the only reason why I think the families trusted me. If you were just to look at it superficially, it shouldn't be me. To this day, I think it shouldn't be me. That's why I think God uses very ordinary people to do extraordinary things. It was the only point of connection I had with them. Because I was such an outsider, it forced me into a place of humility to learn and to get out of the way of the family as they shared their own stories.
CP: What are the interviews in the documentary like?
BI: They're very long and don't superimpose anything. I wanted it to feel pure, with their hearts and their lives on display as they wanted it to be, versus you coming in with a Hollywood mentality, or even with a political or social justice agenda.
CP: Speaking of that, you mentioned that you wanted to highlight the forgiveness after the tragedy. This focus on victims and their families forgiving the shooter has been a source of controversy in and of itself. Some feel like it somehow diminishes the pain the shooter caused, as well as his hateful ideology. How did you handle that?
BI: For anybody who feels like the film may have a bow on it, or is tied up neatly, or feels like it's Christianized, I think they'll actually be very pleasantly surprised. I think the film is much more complex and thoughtful about those matters, which is why we actually feature a significant amount of people who did not forgive in the film. A lot of films about faith and religion fail because they don't reflect the complex and tangled reality we're in. We take a lot of time in the story to actually delineate and explain the history of white supremacy in America, the history of racism, the history of Mother Emanuel as a place that was constantly attacked, and the black church as a refuge from the oppression.
CP: You worked with Focus on the Family to promote your first film, The Drop Box. They have a history of anti-gay propaganda. Are those views that you share?
BI: That was just a project. We don't work together currently or since, but basically, we partnered with them primarily for their domestic orphan care and foster care initiative. I would just agree with the principle of the biblical standard of sexuality. For me, the scriptures are sovereign. Religion itself is kind of predicated on this idea that a lot of what we want to do isn't necessarily what we ought to do.
CP: Isn't that kind of intolerance toward other groups what, at least partly, inspires tragedies like the Emanuel shooting?
BI: I think discrimination and disagreement are totally different things. You can disagree with someone without discriminating against them. None of my friends who are part of the LGBTQ community feel marginalized or alienated because I disagree with part of their life. It's not all of who they are. That's why I think it's kind of a miscommunication on the part of the church and a failure to communicate. I would be careful equating that with what happened when a white supremacist walked into a black church to kill people.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.