Sixty-year-old Lee Jong-rak and his wife, Chun-ja, have 18 kids and counting. More than a dozen of them came to the South Korean pastor via a depository that Lee installed in the wall of his Seoul parsonage in 2009. In a culture where having a child out of wedlock or a disabled child is still viewed as particularly shameful, Lee offers an anonymous alternative to abandoning them on the street. The bell attached to the motion sensor rings about once every three nights, and over the years more than 600 babies have passed through Lee’s box to receive medical care, shelter and, ideally, eventual adoption.
Lee’s story is now chronicled in The Drop Box, a documentary distributed by Focus on the Family, which partnered with Fathom Events for a theatrical release last week. More than 210,000 people saw the film on more than 900 screens in 727 theaters nationwide, making the three-day event one of Fathom’s most successful (November 2013’s Doctor Who 50th anniversary episode is the record holder, drawing 327,000 attendees).
The Drop Box screenings’ turnout and demand on social media for additional screenings led Fathom and Focus on the Family to add an encore presentation for Monday, March 16, in at least 435 theaters. Tickets will go on sale Thursday at the film’s website.
“The success of The Drop Box showings is not surprising, but very exciting,” says Fathom Events CEO John Rubey. “The story is an important one that needs to be spread as widely as possible. Audiences have spoken and now we are responding with an additional showing.”
Adds Focus on the Family president Jim Daly, “When we heard from many others who weren’t able to see this movie, we knew we had to re-release it for an encore presentation.”
The Drop Box director Brian Ivie first learned about Lee in a June 2011 Los Angeles Times profile. At the time, he was a junior at USC’s film school. Six months later, he and 10 friends flew to Seoul for a six-day shoot — the length of their holiday break — thanks to funding from a $20,000 Kickstarter campaign as well as the donation of a brand-new Red Scarlet camera from Red Digital Cinema.
After the 76-minute documentary was completed, Ivie found a distributor in Focus on the Family, which boarded the project in 2013 to make The Drop Box the second in the Christian organization’s nascent documentary series, Reclamation. “Jesus taught in parables because they’re an incredibly effective way to communicate,” says Focus on the Family spokesperson Allison Meggers. “Likewise, we believe today’s viewers are drawn to compelling stories, especially those told through the power of film.”
Following this week’s theatrical showing, Focus will release the documentary on DVD and make it available for church screenings. The organization also has partnered with Kindred Image, the nonprofit Ivie founded to support Lee’s ministry, to create the Global Orphan Care Fund, which has set a $1 million goal to be split evenly between Lee’s efforts in South Korea and Focus on the Family’s domestic foster care adoption initiatives. (A portion of The Drop Box‘s sales also is going directly to Lee’s orphanage.)
In addition to telling Lee’s personal story and depicting his family’s day-to-day care of their young orphans, The Drop Box also addresses criticism that depositories such as his actually encourage child abandonment, and that churches and orphanages should instead devote their resources to postnatal maternal care. To that end, Kindred Image provides monthly care packages for mothers and is now working to build a maternity shelter next to Lee’s home. “The drop box was Pastor Lee’s desperate act of compassion: ‘I’m jumping in the river to save these children that are drowning,’ ” Ivie says. “But Kindred Image is Pastor Lee’s hopeful act of justice, to walk upstream and say, ‘What’s the source of the problem, and how can we fix it?’ “
Ivie himself was transformed by the making of the film. He grew up going to church on Christmas and Easter and considering himself a Christian “because I didn’t smoke cigarettes and I watched Fox News with my mom. It was a decorative label.” But witnessing Lee’s sacrifice and compassion for the abandoned children changed his perspective. “These kids were helpless,” he says, “and I realized I was broken and helpless too, and I also needed to be rescued.”
Because of Focus’ involvement, The Drop Box has been taken up by the pro-life movement, but Ivie regards attempts to politicize his documentary with some ambivalence. “I get why there’s support from that community, but the reality is, people don’t respond to agendas,” says the Southern California native, now at work on his second feature, a narrative film about the 1960s Jesus movement. “[The documentary] is just showing one man who stood up and said, ‘Please don’t throw anyone away. I’ll take you in and I will embrace your suffering.’
“That’s what I hope people do in response,” Ivie says. “Instead of screaming at mothers on Facebook, I hope they say, ‘Your life matters, and I will open up my life to your difficulty.'”