Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady,
Watched on: DVD,
In Jesus Camp, filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were granted unprecedented access to a group of kids who practice a form of evangelical religion so deeply fundamental that it would be admirable if it weren’t so frightening. The pre-teens in this Oscar nominated doc are Pentecostal Charismatics—they live, breathe, cry, sing, and speak in tongues for Jesus. Their leader at the Kids on Fire summer camp, located in the ironically named Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, is a passionate general in an army they believe is led by George Bush, and their camp is a recruitment center for foot soldiers for Jesus Christ.
That’s the impression left by this film, which is a surprisingly even-handed, non-judgmental look at a sub-culture of Americans who believe Harry Potter is a warlock, global warming doesn’t exist, and abortion is the devil’s work. Becky Fisher, the camp director, is a fervent crusader, and she makes no apologies for what she herself calls the indoctrination of her young campers into a fundamentalist movement equal in fervor and commitment to their Islamic radical counterparts in Palestine, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The kids in this film are all fresh-faced, middle class, and mostly white; and they are surprisingly articulate and open with the filmmakers, who were allowed to roam the grounds and be part of the revival meetings, sometimes with two or three cameras rolling simultaneously. As the directors themselves say in their voice-over commentary, some of these kids are “unnervingly mature”, and there is a certain sadness to their cultural isolationism; the way in which their lifestyle of belief supersedes what most of us would think of as a normal childhood. But the filmmakers clearly put the weight of those judgments on our own shoulders, settling for an observant, respectful distance.
The intensity of the camp is balanced somewhat by scenes featuring an Air America radio host who is both a liberal and a fervent Christian, who fields calls from listeners concerned that the fundamentalist Christian right gives all Christians a bad name. This is a deft directorial choice, since the obvious route would have been to include responses from a buffet of talking head liberal non-believers.
The movie starts to run out of steam after about an hour. There is a certain lack of depth in their profiles of the kids, and you learn more about Fisher, the camp leader, in the director’s commentary than you ever learn in the movie. And at times the musical score, a collection of low-key electronica, tends to sway many scenes into the realm of the creepy. But it’s worth sticking around for a sequence involving the disgraced evangelical leader Ted Haggard, who is preaching to his Colorado Springs congregation about homosexuality, only months before he was outed for buying drugs and sex from a male prostitute. It would seem that in this war against sin, these fundamentalists are not only fighting liberals but also the temptations of the flesh.