SCHS graduate finds life transformed by documentary

Brian Ivie, a 2009 graduate of San Clemente High School, said his work on the documentary film The Drop Box changed his life. Photo: David Kim/Kindred Image.
Brian Ivie, a 2009 graduate of San Clemente High School, said his work on the documentary film The Drop Box changed his life. Photo: David Kim/Kindred Image.

By Jim Shilander

When Brian Ivie, then a student at USC’s film school, read an article in the Los Angeles Times in June 2011 about Lee Jong-rak, a Seoul, South Korea pastor, he knew he had a good story. But it was one he didn’t know would change his life completely.

Pastor Lee had built a “depository” into his home as a safe place for women who might wish to abandon their newborn children they were unable or unwilling to take care of due to disabilities, and to do so anonymously. With Lee’s help, the babies, rather than being abandoned on the street, would be cared for.

“I read this story and I didn’t touch my food, it was just one of those stories” Ivie said. “Growing up in San Clemente, I used to make films that were about being in a battle. My hope was to transcend whatever that was and do something real, even if it was painful. And Pastor Lee seemed to be in a battle. He seemed to have built a bunker and drawn a line in the sand, to say ‘Nobody dies in my neighborhood.’ I was really compelled by that.”

But Ivie admitted he also saw the story as a way to move his career forward.

“This had Sundance Film Festival all over it,” Ivie said. “I really thought it would be my golden ticket to Hollywood. These kinds of movies were cool and the kind festival judges really wanted to see. So I had a cocktail of motivations.”

Pastor Lee Jong-rak’s efforts to save abandoned children in a poor neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, drew Brian Ivie’s attention. Photo: David Kim/Kindred Image.
Pastor Lee Jong-rak’s efforts to save abandoned children in a poor neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, drew Brian Ivie’s attention. Photo: David Kim/Kindred Image.

Ivie said he sent about a dozen emails to Lee in the ensuing months, and eventually, one managed to get through and get a response. Lee said he wasn’t exactly sure what Ivie wanted or what a documentary film of his life would be, but he invited him to come stay with him for a time. Ivie accepted. He spent his Christmas break that year in Seoul, sleeping on Lee’s floor with many of the children Lee had adopted. It was the first time he’d been away from home at Christmas.

“It didn’t just change my perspective, it changed my whole life,” Ivie said. “I became Christian while making the film. My spiritual journey is completely defined by this trip.”

Ivie said he hadn’t necessarily taken his faith seriously as anything other than a label, but seeing Lee’s day-to-day struggles made him see how faith could be lived.

“This man was the real deal,” Ivie said. “He was giving up his life every day for kids on the street. It became a picture of something greater, of God giving up everything for a bunch of lost kids. It made everything else in my life seem really fake.”

Ivie returned the following August and then again in December 2013 in order to work on the film and to work with Lee.

“We got about an hour of sleep a night, maybe two,” Ivie said. “We were always on red alert if a baby was left in the box, always with a camera on our hip,” he said.

A special alarm goes off when a child is left. Police are called, and a DNA swab done to allow for future matching to a parent, if the mother wishes to seek out the child. The child is then taken to a hospital for a checkup and then a nursing facility to be adopted, though that process is made more difficult due to a lack of paper work. While many among the abandoned may have been born prematurely or suffer from disabilities or deformities, he said many now are abandoned healthy.

Lee’s efforts have become controversial in South Korea, which saw an exodus of children being adopted internationally in the ’70s and ’80s, many of whom have since returned.

Finishing the Journey

Ivie said his focus as a filmmaker changed from one of depicting Lee’s efforts against a society that might have been seen as obsessed with perfection to one of telling a human story.

“I decided to just focus more on the people,” he said. “When I talked to people it became more of just asking them what they wanted to say. You’re just there to let real life happen.”

He began editing the film in college, sometimes, he said, he’d knock out power to his wing of the dormitory with the homemade equipment he used. A roommate who spoke Korean would do the translation and place subtitles as the film went along.

“I ended up having to pay him in noodles because I ran out of money,” Ivie admitted. “But it required a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”

The film, titled The Drop Box just received a limited release March 3, 4 and 5 through Focus on the Family. Ivie said the film did well enough that he thinks there will be an encore short-term release before being available on DVD and streaming platforms. Ivie has also written a book of the same title that details his spiritual journey in greater detail.

“We’ve had countless families tell us that they’re now planning to adopt,” Ivie said.

While Ivie is now working on another film, he says he has a new focus.

“I’m working on a marriage” Ivie said. “I’m getting married in June and that’s my priority. Movies are not the purpose of my life anymore. They used to be. They used to be the thing that I was chasing, but that’s not their role in the universe.”

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