New Documentary Honoring Charleston Church Shooting Tells Story of Forgiveness

 “Emanuel” private film screening. || Photo credit to Anastassia Gliadkovskaya.

“Emanuel” private film screening. || Photo credit to Anastassia Gliadkovskaya.

 

Amidst 300 mass shootings just this year alone, the United States suffers heaps of grief as people are left with little to hope for but rebellion. Every day, activists and angry citizens around the nation rally for tighter gun control. What no one feels anymore is love; all that’s remembered is hatred.

Deeply stirring documentary “Emanuel” about the 2015 Charleston Church shooting, directed by Brian Ivie, unearths a hidden parallel tale of living amidst hate. The film, which premiered on November 14 at the New York Documentary Festival, shows how one community chose to respond to tragedy with forgiveness.

On the eve of June 17, 2015, congregants gathered as usual for their Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Earlier that day, they had confirmed the attendance of a 21-year-old boy named Dylann Roof, who had previously expressed interest in coming.

Roof arrived at 8:17 p.m. to AME, and would stay less than an hour. He went inside. He shot nine people--including the pastor. Eight died at the scene; the ninth--at the hospital.

The story of what happened that day at the Charleston church is remembered as one of the most heartbreaking mass shootings in a house of worship in America. The tragedy is heartbreakingly no less relevant now, as the latest Pittsburgh synagogue shooting left 11 dead in Pennsylvania on Oct. 27.

At a private screening of the film on Nov. 1 in New York, the Director of Justice Film Festival Andy Peterson explained his aim in featuring the film.

“This is why we have art, in the format of feature films,” he said. “To tell stories...to get together to talk [about difficult subjects] more, and to love more.”

His remarks set the tone for the rest of the evening, which unfolded over the course of two hours as the room sighed and cried over “Emanuel.”

The 75-minute documentary relays the experiences of the survivors, victims’ family members, journalists, preachers, first responders, and others before and after the shooting at AME.

During the first half of the film, each witness recounts in tear-filled interviews their painfully vivid memories of that day.

Survivor Poly Sheppard says she had fallen on the floor of the church beneath a table as she watched the laser beam of Roof’s gun point in different directions and shell casings fell to the ground. She watched him shoot all the victims.

During his rampage, Roof turned to Sheppard.

“Did I shoot you yet?” he said.

No, she said.

“I’m not going to. I’m going to leave you here to tell the story,” Sheppard recalls Roof said.

Uncomfortable and horrifyingly personal descriptions like Sheppard’s on screen leave the viewer equally as desperate with grief. But the film does more than pour out emotion; it burns into every viewer an overwhelming feeling of empathy that sticks long after they’ve left the theater.

The second half of the film, like the second half of the journey to healing following initial shock and outrage, focuses on the battle of forgiveness. As survivors and victims’ family members talk about their process of forgiveness, the viewer is bathed in waves of humility, understanding their own weakness and unworthiness.

Footage of victims’ families sobbing while speaking via intercom to Roof in a cell before his sentencing captures their unimaginable sorrow as they mourn for their loved ones.

The resounding phrase as each one addresses him, though, is astounding: “I forgive you.”

 

“This is why we have art, in the format of feature films,” he said. “To tell stories...to get together to talk [about difficult subjects] more, and to love more.”

-Director of Justice Film Festival Andy Peterson

 

Who would have the strength to seek forgiveness not long after someone they love is brutally murdered and gone from their life? The viewer is forced to admit they, likely, would not.

What strengthened the AME congregants during and after the tragedy, they explain, is their faith in Christ, who suffered for them the most. The spellbinding message of forgiveness resonates with both believers and nonbelievers precisely because both are aware that it’s a person’s faith, whatever it may be, that grants him strength to live on.

Chris Singleton, who lost his mother in the shooting, recalls when, while on the way to a baseball game some weeks before, he decided to write Proverbs 24:10 on his arm hoping to have a good game. His team won that day. It wasn’t until several months after his mother’s death that he came to understand the true meaning of the verse: it wasn’t about baseball; it was about his mom.

In the Q&A on Nov. 1, one victim’s family member attested, “Our faith is our anchor. And we have to depend on that, because it guides us.

Sheppard, who was also present, agreed.

“This is not a story about Dylann Roof. It’s about how good God is,” she said.

In a world that’s often fueled by negative emotion, the illuminating film, and each person in it, is a rare symbol of grace in the perpetual breaking and healing of our nation.

***

Charleston, South Carolina, is historically the premiere U.S. slave port of the 19th century. AME Church, the oldest black congregation in the South, has always been a symbol of resistance to racism and slavery in a city where “racism is as American as apple pie,” the film explains.  

Feeling threatened by the growing popularity of the black race, city officials repeatedly raided the church before the Civil War, and in 1822, the church was burned down, not to be rebuilt until after the war.

On July 10, 2015, less than one month after the shooting, South Carolina took down the highly contentious Confederate flag from its capital city, Columbia. The flag had been there since 1961.

Two years later, Roof was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Co-producer John Shepherd expressed his gratitude for the families’ cooperation in the making of the film, describing his motive to produce it as a “pull from God.”

Basketball star Steph Curry and actress Viola Davis helped sponsor and produce the film.

All the proceeds from the movie, set to be released in February 2019 (Black History Month), will go to the survivors and victims’ families.