I tend to avoid Christian films because they often weren’t very good. But I have to note one exception. Christian filmmakers, with decent regularity, know how to make a solid documentary. This isn’t always the case, but director Brian Ivie’s “Emanuel” is an engaging documentary looking at the families of the victims of the Emanuel AME shooting in 2015.
One can imagine how very political this topic is. The co-host to my podcast, “Literally Anything”, regularly states that everything is political by its very nature, especially in today’s society. Avoiding a political stance is in itself political. While I may not wear this attitude on all things I discuss, I can understand that perspective. Looking back on the events of the 21st Century, I can’t help but view it through the lens, or the barrel, of mass shootings. Shootings have become so regular and commonplace that there is a very real possibility, because I am writing this a few weeks before publication, that there might be a mass shooting between the time I wrote this and the time it reaches the reader’s eye.
Tensions start to swell in the aftermath of a shooting. While everyone advocates for the victims, those in the crossfire tend to end up as pawns for political collateral. I don’t think that people mean to do it. It happens on both sides of the gun control debate. At a time that most Americans are heartbroken from the loss of life, spectators leave the debate with a dislike and distaste for their neighbors. And the cycle goes on.
Ivie’s film might be the best way to talk about a mass shooting. Removed from the immediacy of the events, “Emanuel” provides context for the events discussed. Rather than acting as a playing card, the film is the discussion we need. It places the focus on the victims and their families.
I remember Columbine pretty well. While Columbine became the template for how the media addresses violence on a large scale, the immediate aftermath seemed focused on the lives lost in the shooting. We were afraid and angry. We didn’t know how to handle this situation that seemed unfathomable. I know that Columbine wasn’t the first mass shooting, but it was probably the one that woke us up as a nation. We talked about the people. They were individuals, not statistics. “Emanuel” returns to that. While shooter Dylan Roof is addressed and analyzed in the film, the movie devotes the majority of the film to the victims’ families.
Using long-form interviews, the testimonies shed light on who these people were in life rather than in death. It is a risky move as a filmmaker, from Ivie’s perspective. Because the camera places so much attention to these interviews, often the film feels like a sermon about individual people. When I started watching the film, I questioned this choice. “Emanuel” loses its documentary quality, avoiding quick cuts and traditional sense of pacing. However, keeping in mind that the purpose of the film is to honor the victims rather than push an agenda, this slow interview process makes these interviews feel personal and private. There were times when the descriptions of family members were being given only to me and I understood what these people meant to their families.
From a Christian and Catholic perspective, the movie could rest entirely on being the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead. This film is almost like a funeral in a way. It is a celebration of lives lived in service of the Lord. The victims died immediately after a bible study that the shooter attended. They died martyrs. But the story doesn’t end there. Rather than simply burying the dead, the film also focuses on the spiritual work of mercy when it addresses themes of forgiveness. A major element of the film is the fact that many of the family members forgave Dylan Roof almost immediately after he was brought into custody. The film uses this moment to tackle the difficulties of forgiveness when the stakes are so high.
But like my co-host said, all things are political. Brian Ivie and his team had to know what they were making because they maneuver the political landscape. I tend to disrespect documentaries that take the easy way out. Often, I watch docs that simply invite those who are already aligned with the purpose of the documentary. “Emanuel” takes a lot of political perspectives and gives them voices. While only dancing around a gun control element, the movie has members of the Black Lives Matter movement, those who actively opposed the families who forgave Roof, and historians who give cultural context to the racial motivations behind Dylan Roof’s shooting.
I saw an early screener of “Emanuel.” The version I saw was described as incomplete. There are moments that could be tightened. Some of the images came across as pretty generic. But “Emanuel”, regardless of what form the final product would be, hits some very important notes. If we are to continue to stand as witnesses to violence, films like “Emanuel” remind us that people are not bargaining chips. People are people. The parishioners at Emanuel AME were good people. Something terrible happened to them and that should never be forgotten. “Emanuel” gives us the space to remind us what is really happening each time we see that Breaking News graphic scrawl across our screens. One can only pray that we won’t need films like “Emanuel” to remind us of the importance of human life.