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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Jesus Camp" (2006)

The new documentary “Jesus Camp” does not intend for us to merely watch evangelical Christians and the way they teach their children so we can laugh and gasp in horror, though it will provoke that reaction from some viewers. It also does not intend to convert anyone to Christianity, though the people in the film appear to have embraced this documentary nonetheless. “Jesus Camp” intends for us to observe this rapidly growing community of fundamentalist Christians and to walk out of the movie debating and discussing what we just saw. It would be too easy to make a movie where we’re supposed to laugh at these people. It would also be too easy to make this into a 90-minute commercial for Christianity. Instead, filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have done something far more fulfilling, daring and rewarding.

Ewing and Grady already know their audience. The majority of people who attend documentaries in arthouses will be Liberal, so what good is it to keep preaching to the choir (so to speak)? Ewing and Grady prefer to challenge their audience, no matter what their belief. I am, for the most part, a Liberal, but I didn’t disagree with everything that Becky Fischer, the movie’s main subject who teaches the kids at Jesus Camp, had to say. I also found that the kids in this film are some of the smartest, most articulate and level-headed kids I’ve ever seen in a documentary film. This also happened to be the case with the 2002 documentary Promises,” which focused on Jewish and Palestinian children growing up in Jerusalem. Could this be the result of children being raised on more religion and less media?

It’s possible. This movie does not attempt to condemn the parents, who teach their kids that global warming is a myth and nothing to be alarmed about. Ewing and Grady let the parents make their case for why they teach what they teach. Becky Fischer, who runs the summer bible camp in South Dakota where most of the movie takes place, denounces Harry Potter as “a warlock” and therefore “an enemy of God.” Later in the movie, though, one kid brags to another that he can’t watch Harry Potter movies at his mother’s house, but he can at his father’s house. One starts to wonder if religion broke these parents up in the first place.

But “Jesus Camp” doesn’t stop too long to ponder such issues. It takes a less-is-more approach. One lone voice of dissent, Mike Papantonio, sits in a radio station studio denouncing the values of bible camps and the growing influence of Christianity in the Republican Party. He takes calls from Christians who disagree with his viewpoints and when the show goes to commercial, he takes the headphones off looking exhausted. He feels like how a lot of people feel when they’re the only one in a room with a belief that deviates from everyone else. Papantonio doesn’t get as much screen time as the Christians, but it’s not entirely necessary for him to either.

“Jesus Camp” is more about the next generation of evangelical ministers. The kids in this film have embraced their lot in life and have intense spiritual encounters during their time at the camp. They learn to walk up to complete strangers with a leaflet in their hand asking if they want to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. One kid in particular, Levi, already has the gift of gab for preaching before an entire crowd of devout followers. He admits he doesn’t know whether it’s his age that holds the crowd spellbound or the content. He is told by a mentor to use his childlike nature until he’s 30. By that time, he’ll have enough content that his age won’t matter anymore.

In the end, “Jesus Camp” is about the breeding of salesmen and saleswomen. It is about the intensity with which parents and scholars engrave their value system into children’s minds so that they will pass on the message(s) to future generations. In order to sell your product, you have to believe in your product and know your product inside and out. These kids know their stuff and have accepted their mission in life to spread the word of Jesus. The movie maintains that because of the current political climate, more people are buying into the sales pitch. Is it brainwashing? Yes, but who’s to say these kids aren’t having an intense spiritual encounter when they burst into tears and start speaking in tongues?

The haunting and beautifully shot “Jesus Camp” will inevitably spark some serious debates, which is its sole intent. There will be people who denounce this movie as “liberal propaganda” (Michael Medved has already jumped on that). There will be those on the other side who embrace it as a spiritual wake-up call to America. Much will be made of the scene in which the kids pray to and bless a cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush. It’s an absurd moment on many levels, but the movie depicts it as a symptom of a culture war that is prevalent in our society as we become more and more divided from one another because of our spiritual beliefs. I don’t believe these people look at Bush as a Christ figure, so much as a powerful Christian ally.

But the most haunting image for me (and this film is filled with haunting images) is that of the kids in Washington D.C. staging a protest against abortion. They stand silent and motionless with a piece of black tape across their mouth with the word LIFE in big red letters. It resonates not because of the message about abortion, but because of what life really means to these kids. How much of a choice were they given when they were taught these religious beliefs? How much of the choice is theirs to be standing on these steps? How much of their life really belongs to them?

Becky Fischer does acknowledge the parallel between what she’s doing with these kids and what fundamentalist Islamists do with their kids, only instead of putting a gun in their hands, she teaches them something far less horrifying. “Jesus Camp” will have you debating and discussing when these people have gone too far. It doesn’t let the viewer off easy as to what its “slant” may be. I took from it what I feel I’m supposed to take from it: A statement about our culture based on what I see going on, not exactly what the filmmakers see what’s going on. That is the ultimate triumph of “Jesus Camp.” Like a religious belief, it challenges you and lets you make up your own mind.

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