Memorable documentaries about terrible tragedies often act as a necessary public memorial, with interviewees — marked however they’ve been by the passage of time — illuminating the gospel of grief while the director oversees everything like a thoughtful pastor attuned to whatever message of sorrow and healing feels truest in the retelling.
Mass shootings have made this kind of revisiting a way of not only celebrating those lost and checking in on the mourning, but also demanding a deeper examination of darker currents coursing through society. And Brian Ivie’s spiritually minded “Emanuel” does both as it returns us to the horrific evening in June 2015 when young white supremacist Dylann Roof entered Charleston, S.C.'s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church and gunned down 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 anger mixed with tears while America’s racist history was unpacked once more, a handful of surviving family members made their own news by reminding everyone of what their faith meant to them: At a hearing, they faced Roof and forgave him.
That seemingly unthinkable gesture — which wasn’t felt by all the bereaved, but more than you might think — is where Ivie, a Southern Californian with no connection to Charleston, directs his Christian-based compassion. Through interviews with survivors of the massacre, loved ones and congregants, as well as reporters, politicians and activists, Ivie has made something heartfelt and messy, focused on what’s devotional in testifying about a joy that’s never coming back, and pardoning a malevolence that’s never gone away.
Tastefully photographed in comforting surroundings, the survivors’ reflections are powerful. Nadine Collier smiles as she talks about the loss of her mother, Ethel, the memories sparking laughter that sounds like she’s willing her presence back. Felicia Sanders recounts with surprising serenity the surreal horror of being in the killer’s sights along with her granddaughter, whom she was able to shield by playing dead, but also with her aunt and son, who didn’t survive.
When Ivie dedicates hushed, music-free screen time to these core figures of bereavement — people such as the Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife was among the murdered — “Emanuel” achieves a rich solemnity in honoring lives ripped away too soon and often quickly forgotten by a public all too often redirected by the news cycle toward another mass shooting.
Ivie is less focused, however, and more inclined to distracting choices when he dips into historical and social contexts, from the church’s storied past as a slavery-era beacon of African American fellowship, to Charleston’s complex legacy with race, to our current charged political era. The information is helpful, but too often, Ivie succumbs to timeworn documentary traps — slick historical reenactments, too many talking heads to keep track of — that lessen the overall impact of the emotional intensity he’s after. Other times, a topic such as the police’s racially biased treatment of suspects will be raised, only to be left unexamined.
When Ivie initially turns his attention to the killer, seen at home and on security camera, one also starts to worry — Roof, after all, will forever be an intruder — until one realizes that the director is building toward the drama of the mourners’ collective forgiveness. Ivie is aware of its controversy, enough so to include one victim’s churchgoing brother emphatically detailing why he can’t be so generous. And yet the broader question of where such spiritual magnanimity fits in with the importance of justice isn’t addressed with any real curiosity.
Then again, “Emanuel” is more religious sermon than intellectual exercise, with a message aimed squarely at the heart, even if it makes the quick forgiving of so vile a person seem like an act of unimaginable mental strength.
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 18, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills