Urban Faith Q&A with EMANUEL Director Brian Ivie
Growing up in Los Angeles, Brian Ivie dreamed of becoming a famous filmmaker. While enrolled in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, he studied some of the most critically acclaimed Hollywood directors in pursuit of that goal. But a newspaper article about a pastor in one of the poorest districts in Seoul, South Korea who built a Drop Box in his home for people to deposit unwanted babies with disabilities took him abroad to document that story. He came back to the U.S. realizing that he, like those babies, also needed to be saved.
Do you think your purpose as a filmmaker is to tell more nuanced stories of Christianity?
Well I think when I first became a Christian I figured you had to go to Africa and live in a tent and serve as a missionary, and then God called me back to Hollywood. I think that was something I really struggled with because I didn’t understand how that could be reconciled with my faith and what I wanted to do, which was to just tell people about God.
And, of course, as I know now, this is really the greatest way to do that because the houses of worship of our culture are really not churches, or temples or mosques, they’re YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. So my purpose, I would say changed way beyond movies, meaning that my heart now is to build God’s kingdom instead of building my own empire. That would be the truth even if I was a chef, or anything else, but I think when it comes to movies, it’s always something I knew wanted to do. I just didn’t know why. I didn’t know what stories I was going to tell. So now I think I’ve just committed to myself that whatever story I tell it’s going to be about Him. It’s going to be what he’s like. My heart is to make Christian films for non-Christians, basically, films that preach beyond the choir and invite people in.
Video Courtesy of Howard University: EMANUEL panel discussion with Steph Curry, Jeron Smith, Brian Ivie, L. Charlton at Howard University in Washington, DC.
The canon of faith-based films generally features storylines where there are fewer blurred lines about the impact of faith in someone’s life. It also hasn’t included documentary. Do you think you’re breaking into any new ground in how you chose to tell this story?
My films have these themes and these ideas because of who I am, less because its something I’m trying to engineer. The more I spend time with God, the more the films have those kinds of ideas and the themes are present. I think that’s true of any filmmaker no matter what. Filmmaking is a very spiritual endeavor, no matter what you believe. I don’t know if I’m breaking new ground, but I think what I am trying to do within the context of faith-based films is try to make films that speak to the reality of God to an audience that may or may not believe and that is disinterested and disillusioned. I think most faith-based films are just part of the “holy huddle,” and they’re just preaching to the choir and don’t really make sense to anybody outside of church culture.
I didn’t grow up in the culture of Christianity. I grew up watching Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson. So I hope that I can reach kind of a different audience, definitely a younger one, but also one that is much more cynical and skeptical and hopefully reaches them where they are. Usually, they’re not watching “God’s Not Dead.” They’re watching “Stranger Things” or “The People vs. O.J. [Simpson],” so, that’s kind of what I’m hoping to live.
The documentary form was really just chosen because of a lack of resources, because it’s cheaper, initially, but I also think it lends itself well to talking about faith because that’s what people expect from documentaries—is to be educated or to be confronted with something. Whereas usually, it can feel like a bait and switch, in a documentary you’re able to have a real conversation with someone, that’s why I like that form.
What have you observed from audiences who have screened EMANUEL?
I think what I’m really thankful for is that audiences have, no matter what they come into that room with, they’ve come out, I think, more free. There are a lot of people who have a lot of anger. I think that anger is very justified and very righteous in many respects—especially in the African American community.
African Americans come out of the film really honored. I think that was really cool for me to see because as a White American my fear was that I would, in some way, even unintentionally, just whitewash the movie. But thankfully in every screening, I’ve had an African American come up to me and say, ‘thank you for not doing that’ and “thank you for honoring my people, thank you for giving us a voice.’ Honestly, I just see my role as handing the microphone to people who really have something to say. So, that’s been amazing.
For White Americans that come in to see the film, I’ve seen them be very humbled and quiet. That’s been really cool to see, too, because it shows that we’re now listening a little bit more to the wounded people of our country and in our community that really need healing. That’s not just going to be through conversation. It’s going to be hard work, but it’s a start. Then, I’ve also seen people come out of the film who are feeling like maybe God is real, even if they didn’t walk in with that belief, and that is my greatest goal. So that’s been really encouraging.
Speaking of race were there any challenges that you felt that you had to overcome to show the family members they could trust you with their story?
At first, I was very scared that this would be disrespectful or weird or at the very least it this would be something like you say, a huge obstacle because there’s certainly something I can never understand about being Black.
There’s a wound that’s just too deep. A lot of times I don’t say anything at all and I just listen and let them share. Which is why I think a lot of the interviews are so like you said, uncut because I tried to stay out of the way as much as possible. But I will say that I didn’t conduct the interviews with the families. That was a choice that I made so that they could look at somebody who understood them and understood their experience at a deeper level. So my producing partner Dimas conducted those interviews and also really pastored them and cared for them through that process because he is a Reverend.
But I think honestly the families really embraced me. That was a super surprising thing, but I think it was less because, even just White/Black and all that, it was because beneath all of that or before all of that my identity to Christ. I shared that with them. As I said to them at the first meeting I wanted the world to know where God was in all of this. They had never heard a media person, whether Black or White, say that before. So I think that’s why they came to trust me.
How did the project come together?
I tried to stay away from the story for a year because I didn’t want to be an opportunist but then ended up meeting my producing partner Dimas Salaberrios on a totally separate project. He asked me what was really on my heart and I told him the story in Charleston. He ended up having been there and marched over the bridge and prayed over the families and had relationships and so we really just started to work together and joined hands to see if we could tell God’s story through this.
So we met with the families. Viola was a friend. Stephen was not. But they both ended up seeing the film. I think of Viola as an activist and Stephen as a Christian — both of them really as Christians. Stephen was a man of faith who was trying to build a new company that stood for Christ in Hollywood. They both felt like this was a story that they didn’t want the world to forget. Mariska, in a similar way, was really moved by the story and in her own life had had a lot of loss and trauma and felt that this film presented a way of healing and the rest is history.
What are you working on next?
Right now I am working on the Kirk Franklin movie. My first interaction with faith was in a gospel party in college and so it’s really exciting to see the confluence of all that Kirk has made and also my own experience in this project. We’re hoping to get that done at the end of the year.