Considering the subject matter and its polarizing nature, the truly astounding thing about the documentary Jesus Camp is the way that directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady manage to leave commentary out of it. As someone who is staunchly in the category Bill O’Reilly would label as “secular progressive” (or SP if you will), if it had been me behind he camera I would have been fit to be tied out of desire to shake some sense into these people. Not Ewing and Grady though, their objective lens captures every last morsel and keep things objective to the point where the film can be read two ways: it can preach to the choir or culture shock the conscientious objector.
The title refers to the “Kids on Fire” summer camp ironically located near Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. The camp is run by Pentecostal children’s minister Beck Fischer of Kids in Ministry International. In interviews with the filmmakers, Fischer explains that fundamentalist Islam is indoctrinating its children from a young age, so America needs to begin doing the same in regards to its children and Christianity. Along with Fischer, three kids take centre stage in the documentary; Levi who has ambitions to be a pastor when he grows up, Rachel who has no qualms about spreading the gospel to complete strangers and Tory who performs dance routines to Christian heavy metal.
On the one hand there’s an odd sort of appreciation for the depth of faith that these people have. Included is footage of the kids so deep in their apparent communions with God that they are brought to tears. These scenes kind of slake the visceral urge to scream for holy hell about how utterly messed up some of the stuff going on at that camp is. In spite of some of the sharp-tongued rhetoric that these kids regurgitate like parrots asking for a cracker, they are rather likeable and seemingly genuine in their beliefs; especially Levi, who despite being named after denim, is already building quite the repertoire of holy thunder.
But while the kids are sympathetic, I find myself hard pressed to return the favour to those feeding them the lines. Fischer eulogizes Harry Potter saying the fact that he’s a warlock would see him stoned in biblical times despite the fact that he fights on the side of the angels. Lou Engle, “the chief prophet” for Harvest International Ministries is brought in to lead the kids in prayer for righteous judges to be appointed to the Supreme Court in order to overturn Roe V. Wade. A life-size cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush is brought in and the kids are asked to lay hands on it to give the President strength. In another scene, Levi’s mom home schools him about how science has never proved anything and that the Earth, and all things on it, is no older than 6 millennia.
These scenes, as well as those featuring disgraced preacher Ted Haggard, highlight the very worst in the modern American Evangelical movement. I highly doubt that this is representative of all people of the faith, just as in the same way that al-Qaeda is not representative of all Muslims, but there’s a lot to be frightened of as depicted on screen. One is the fact that these adults are whole heartedly invested in not just turning these kids into a political force, but if necessary, a militant one. This to me says two wrongs make a right, if Muslim extremists are indoctrinating their kids to be suicide bombers then Christians should do the same; so much for turning the other cheek.
The filmmaking style is very clean and very straightforward. Ewing and Grady let the camera linger and are unafraid to get in there with the faithful to get their point of view. I think the directors make an unfortunate choice in inter-splicing bits from Mike Papantonio’s Air America talk show Ring of Fire as colour commentary; it only emboldens the film’s critics to suggest that this is a political plebiscite. I want to reiterate that this is an incredibly even-handed documentary that humanizes as well as frightens. You won’t believe some of the stuff that happens and the reaction it can provoke ranges from spastic laughter to jaw-dropping aghast.
An important film in company with An Inconvenient Truth and The Road to Guantanamo, Jesus Camp is a provocative and brilliantly-made documentary that should be seen by all no matter the stripe of their politics.