Memorable documentaries about terrible tragedies often act as a necessary public memorial, with respondents — marked as they have been over time — illuminating the gospel of sadness, while the director oversees everything, like a caring pastor, attuned to any message of Sadness and healing seems more true when retelling.
Mass shootings have made this kind of revisiting a way of not only celebrating the lost and mourning, but also requiring a deeper examination of the darkest currents running through society. And Brian Ivie's spiritual spirit, “Emanuel,” does both when he returns to us on the horrible night of June 2015, when young white supremacy Dylann Roof entered Charleston, SC's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church and killed nine black worshipers during a Bible study meeting.
But as a community, a city, and a nation expressed shock at the evil of it all, and the anger mingled with tears as the racist history of the United States was unpacked once again, a handful of surviving relatives made their own news reminding us of all of what faith meant to them: in an audience, they faced Roof and forgave him.
This seemingly unthinkable gesture – not felt by all the mourners, but more than you might think – is where Ivie, a Southern California Californian with no connection to Charleston, directs her Christian compassion. Through interviews with massacre survivors, loved ones and congregants, as well as reporters, politicians, and activists, Ivie has done something sincere and confusing, focused on what is devotional by witnessing about a joy that never comes back and forgiving a malevolence that never went away.
Tastefully photographed in a comforting environment, the survivors' reflections are powerful. Nadine Collier smiles as she talks about the loss of her mother, Ethel, the laugh-provoking memories that seem to want her presence back. Felicia Sanders reports with surprising serenity the surreal horror of being in the killer's eye with her granddaughter, whom she was able to protect by pretending to be dead, but also with her aunt and son, who did not survive.
When Ivie devotes quiet, museless time to these central figures of mourning – people like Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife was among the murdered – "Emanuel" achieves a rich solemnity in honoring early lives and often quickly forgotten by a man. audience often redirected through the news cycle for another mass shooting.
Ivie is less focused, however, and more inclined to distract choices when he plunges into historical and social contexts, from the church's historical past as a beacon of African-American communion in the era of slavery, to Charleston's complex legacy of race. , our current political politics was. The information is useful, but Ivie often succumbs to time-worn documentary pitfalls – slippery historical reenactments, too many talking heads to keep up with – that lessen the overall impact of the emotional intensity he seeks. Other times, a topic such as the racial treatment of police suspects will be raised, just to be examined.
When Ivie initially turns her attention to the killer, seen at home and on the security camera, she also worries – Roof, after all, will always be an intruder – until it becomes apparent that the director is building the mourning drama. collective forgiveness. Ivie is aware of his controversy enough to include the brother of a church-going victim emphatically detailing why he cannot be so generous. And yet the broader question of where this spiritual magnanimity fits into the importance of justice is not approached with any real curiosity.
On the other hand, "Emanuel" is more religious sermon than intellectual exercise, with a message directed straight to the heart, even though it makes the quick forgiveness of such a vile person seem like an act of unimaginable mental strength.
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Runtime: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Playing: Begins October 18 at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills