Photo credit: Arbella Studios
Empower Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Brian Ivie, director of Emanuel, the soon-to-be-released documentary on the Charleston, South Carolina church massacre, executive produced by Stephen Curry and Viola Davis. In this Q&A spotlight, the director chronicles the tragic details surrounding the mass shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina and the powerful message of forgiveness that unfolded in the face of hate. The documentary is set for limited release nationwide in select theaters on June 17 and June 19 only.
What inspired your creative journey and led you into filmmaking?
That is a great question. I had actually wanted to make movies since I was 9 years old. I wanted to make movies ever since I knew you could do it for a living. My parents weren’t exactly excited about that idea but as a kid, every summer, I would make movies and I would gather my friends and would make them elves and trolls and would cast them in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. We would make these films in our little Hollywood in southern California and I ended up starting a film club in high school. I decided I was going to go to film school and pursue this dream, so I applied to USC which is the Harvard of film schools, and that is really where my journey began. I ended up following a story out to South Korea about an orphanage and that is how I came to my faith and changed the trajectory of my life. Film school was my seminary of sorts and ever since I have been making movies for God.
What motivated you to do a documentary on the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting?
Back in 2016, I was actually on my honeymoon and I remember I was standing out on the balcony with my bible looking out at the beautiful day and I heard my wife crying in the bedroom. I walked in and she was watching a video on my laptop and I asked what was going on and she said ‘nine people just got shot at a bible study’ and I said ‘what are you talking about, where?’ She said a white kid walked into a black church, shot nine people and walked out. It was like one of the greatest moments of my life collided with someone else’s worst moment and I didn’t know what to do. And then my wife looked at me again and said ‘you don’t understand, the family members are forgiving him right now.’ She turned the computer around and showed me the family member in court forgiving the murderer and inviting him to be redeemed. I remember looking at my wife and saying, whoever tells that story I hope they don’t forget that part. And that is where it started for me.
As director of this documentary, what was your top goal in pursuing this project?
Initially, it was to stay away from the story, to be honest with you, because I didn’t want to tell the story because I didn’t think it was my place, not being African American, I didn’t feel it was my story to tell. But I couldn’t get it off of my mind, couldn’t get it off of my heart and a year later I traveled to Charleston for a memorial service and started meeting with the families. My number one goal was to make sure that any money I made would go directly to them. I told them at our first meeting that I wanted the world to know where God was in all of this and that is when they really started to go, ok then let’s talk about that. Creatively, my goal was to get out of their way and let them tell their own story.
In a documentary surrounded by so much tragedy, was it difficult to approach survivors and their family members in order to complete this project?
I had my producing partner interview the family members who were suffering and grieving; he is a reverend and he immediately connected with them on a deeper level and I think that made the difference.
Is there any one particular story or back story from family members or survivors that resonated with you the most?
Yes, I think Felicia Sanders, her son was shot down in front of her in the room. And when faced with Dylann Roof, the man who killed her son, she said ‘we enjoyed you and we welcomed you to bible study with open arms’ and the next time she sees him she is holding her bible with her son’s blood stains and she said, the blood of Jesus Christ was shed for you and for me. And to me, that kind of grace, and that kind of heart of forgiveness is really the most powerful part of the film and the most powerful part of the journey.
Were there any particular challenges you encountered along the way?
Oh, my goodness, how much time do you have, we could talk about that for a long time. I would say the main challenge was trying to tell the story in a way that honored all of the families. Because they were all in different places and I wanted to honor where they actually were in each of their journeys to forgiveness or unforgiveness. I wanted to honor how they actually felt about what happened and ensure that whatever came out of this that they would be blessed and pleased and felt like we honored the legacy of their loved ones. And thankfully, by God’s grace, I can say that that is true, all families have seen it and blessed it and said they are proud to promote it and to say that it is part of their families’ legacy now.
How did Stephen Curry and Viola Davis get connected to the documentary?
Well, the short answer is God. Stephen and Viola saw an early cut of the film. For Viola, she came out of South Carolina and she is a Christian woman and a woman of color. This could not be a more personal story and so she didn’t want the world to forget. And for Stephen, being a man of faith who has just entered Hollywood to try to tell stories about faith, he just felt like this is the one that resonated in his heart the most. Together they make a pretty amazing combination.
What is the message you hope audiences will walk away with after viewing this documentary?
Well, I hope for people who don’t think that racial healing and racism in America is an important issue, I hope that they would see that it is really important to a lot of wounded brothers and sisters in our country. So I hope they make it important to them as I have to and I learned a lot about that in the journey. More than anything, I want people to see that God is real and that He is with us in our suffering.
How long did it take to complete the documentary?
From the very first meeting until today, three years.
What is next on the horizon for you as a filmmaker?
I am actually working on the Kirk Franklin movie so that is what I am excited about. Kirk is a phenomenal man of God and I am honored to be telling his story and that is what I am working on right now.
Is there anything I have not asked that is important to you to share about this documentary?
I just encourage [individuals] to come and experience it to show these families that we are with them and what they have been through. And to show that there is light in the darkness and hope for healing no matter what you have been through. We have seen people come out of the screening no matter what they have been through and literally said, if those people can still live, I can still live. And I just hope that people will give it a chance to experience that kind of love and that kind of hope- that is really what this story is about.
You mentioned your next project will be on Kirk Franklin, when do you expect that will be completed?
Oh gosh, sooner rather than later, I would love to, but basically in Hollywood, you never know, but we are hoping to get that started early next year as far as filming and everything and hopefully 2020 – that is the goal.
Do you have plans to do projects on the big screen next?
Yes, the big screen at some point, whatever God has for me. But whatever the story calls for is what I care about and it is always going to be about the God who changed my life.
How can individuals find out for more information about you and your future projects?
They can visit www.arbellastudios.com to find out more information on my company, my mission and what we are trying to do.