Beliefs Culture Ethics Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

This filmmaker set out to win Sundance and got ‘saved’ instead

Brian Ivie is the director of "The DropBox," an award-winning documentary about a Korean pastor who accepts unwanted children through a deposit box on the side of his church. - Image courtesy of Brian Ivie
Brian Ivie is the director of "The DropBox," an award-winning documentary about a Korean pastor who accepts unwanted children through a deposit box on the side of his church. - Image courtesy of Brian Ivie

Brian Ivie is the director of “The Drop Box,” an award-winning documentary about a Korean pastor who accepts unwanted children through a deposit box on the side of his church. – Image courtesy of Brian Ivie

Brian Ivie, 24, grew up dreaming about making a film that would compete at Sundance Film Festival. When he stumbled on a 2011 Los Angeles Times article, “South Korean pastor tends an unwanted flock,” Ivie thought he found his way in.

The article recounted the story of Pastor Lee Jong-rak of Seoul who decided to build a “baby box” for mothers to leave their unwanted children. Hundreds of infants are abandoned in South Korea each year due to social stigmas associated with domestic adoption, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and physical and mental disabilities. Lee feels a supernatural call to personally care for the children that others refuse to keep. He and his wife, Chun-Ja, now care for dozens of children. Many of them have a disability, such as deafness, blindness, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy.

“Here was the story of a pastor who had built a mailbox for babies at his church, and it haunted me,” Ivie said of learning about Lee’s story. “I thought, ‘This could be my golden ticket to Sundance.'”

While still a film student at the University of Southern California, Ivie tracked down Lee to ask if he could visit Korea and make a documentary about his work. Lee responded that he wasn’t sure what making a documentary meant, but he invited Ivie to come live in his home. After raising money via Kickstarter and convincing Red Digital Cinema to donate state-of-the-art equipment, Ivie flew to South Korea to capture the story he hoped would make him famous. But what he found in Seoul was faith, rather than fame.

“I didn’t smoke cigarettes and watched Fox News with my mom, so I assumed I was probably a Christian,” Ivie, who was raised Roman Catholic, said. “But when I witnessed the love and courage of Pastor Lee, I saw the real deal. He was giving his life for something that wasn’t cultural.”

Through the process, Ivie says he was “saved” or converted to Christianity. The experience, he says, brought him a sense of purpose and freedom from struggles such as anger issues and pornography addiction.

“When I started, I was using these people in Korea to fulfill my aspirations to go to Sundance, but I found something much greater,” Ivie says.

This spiritual awakening propelled Ivie to visit Lee two more times and complete the film, “The Drop Box,” which can be seen in theaters nationwide from March 3 to 5. A book written by Ivie that shares his personal journey also releases in March.

Pastor Lee rescues an unwanted infant from the depository on the side of his church.

Pastor Lee rescues an unwanted infant from the depository on the side of his church. – Image courtesy of Focus on the Family

The film is being distributed by “Focus on the Family,” and considering its emphasis on the sanctity of infant life, will likely be a powerful tool for pro-life advocates. Ivie recognizes this and says he hopes the film will expand the pro-life movement beyond just opposing abortion to also focusing the humanity of women who struggle with difficult decisions.

“Pastor Lee is a man who doesn’t yell at women to stop having abortions,” Ivie says. “Instead, he says, ‘I will take your children and raise them with love.’ Telling people that they matter and that their child matters is the only way forward.”

“The Drop Box” was not admitted to Sundance Film Festival, which Ivie says is because “it is not as good as a lot of those films.” But such an assessment may be Ivie’s attempt at humility. His film has earned a spate of critical accolades including being named an official selection at both the Portland Film Festival and Heartland Film Festival, as well as winning the prestigious “Best of Festival” award at the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival.

Despite my own aversion to documentaries and “faith-based” art, I decided to screen the final cut of the film this week and found myself both weeping and laughing all the way through. The film is not overtly evangelistic or heavy-handed in conveying spiritual themes. It is imaginative in its storytelling and allows critics of Lee’s work to be heard so that audiences can judge for themselves.

All in all, “The Drop Box” is one of the most stunning and moving documentaries I’ve ever seen, and it will set up Ivie as a major player in a burgeoning faith film industry. Ivie has already begun developing his next film, tentatively titled “The Jesus Revolution,” which tells the story of the America’s last spiritual awakening. He describes it “‘Almost Famous‘ meets the Gospel.”

“A lot of people get saved and then go to the Amazon jungle and preach to unreached people groups,” Ivie says, “but I want to reach people in and through Hollywood by making good films that aren’t corny or obvious or self-righteous or cliche.”

If his first attempt at filmmaking is any indication, Ivie is already well on his way.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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