Film-Forward Review: [Jesus Camp]

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Ten-year-old Tory
Photo: Magnolia

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Written & Directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady.
Produced by Nancy Dubuc & Molly Thompson.
Director of Photography: Mira Chang & Jenna Rosher.
Edited by: Enat Sidi.
Music: Force Theory & J.J. McGeehan.
Released by: Magnolia.
Country of Origin: United States. 85 minutes. Rating: PG-13.

The centerpiece of this introduction to a substantial American subculture is Pastor Becky Fischer’s Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil’s Lake, ND, and the documentary’s best moments are her interviews dealing with her enthusiastic calling, methodology and preparation, although the film doesn’t quite make clear for the uninitiated how her innovations go beyond the traditional vacation church camps of summers past.

Frequently invoking kids’ “thirst for the supernatural,” she rails against the Harry Potter books for glamorizing “warlocks” (a term Rowling never uses) and encourages the children to speak in tongues as they are filled with the Holy Spirit, like an alternative to how Harry can speak the language of snakes. She frequently justifies her approach to children by using the maxim often attributed to the Jesuits, "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man," as if it were a researched educational statistic. Some of what makes the footage intriguing is hearing a different use of the English language for a living God that many of us only hear at the Grammy awards when country and hip-hop artists give thanks. And anyone who ever had to do a presentation can appreciate the pastor preemptively shooing the devil away from her PowerPoint equipment.

However, it is startling to hear Fischer matter-of-factly acclaim the tactics of Muslim fundamentalists as an inspiration, citing the kind of militaristic camps and madrasas that can be seen in the recent Robert Baer narrated documentary The Cult of the Suicide Bomber. With missionaries referred to as martyrs, a subtitle for the film could be “Learning from Hamas” – but, she says with a grin, “We have the Truth.”

We meet in-depth three white, middle-class, and home-schooled Missouri preteens and their anti-evolution parents in their suburban cul-de-sac McMansions, though the camera picks out the few people of color at the various church services. Rachael, age nine, proselytizes everyone she meets anywhere, including at her local bowling alley. She disparages stolid mainstream Protestant services and assumes African-American men who bemusedly rebuff her must therefore be Muslims. Tory, 10, dances away in her bedroom to heavy metal Christian music. And recalling the 1972 documentary Marjoe about a child-preacher, 12-year-old Levi, with a long mullet, practices his preaching skills. The three have fewer challenges in their lives than the at-risk African-American boys from Baltimore in The Boys of Baraka, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady previous award-winning feature. But unlike Baraka, there is less a sense of change in the kids. The camp seems more to reinforce the bubble of evangelical culture they are already living in, despite the constant claims they are typical American kids.

In an interview in the press materials, Pastor Fischer objects to the film considering her services political: “To us this is just good Christianity.” But that seems disingenuous because of her repeated emphasis on “training,” with children as “an untapped resource.” While the filmmakers throw around uncredited statistics about evangelical Christians and their political might, Fischer herself is very careful to have the explicitly political elements of her camp be conducted by guest speakers, who pray for President Bush along with a life-size cardboard figure of the president, and against abortion, with hands-on baby dolls and protest accoutrements.

But she does seem to set the kids up as she works them into a frenzied state to be used as soldiers in the culture wars. The political manipulation is made even more specific at a service by the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Pastor Ted Haggard, at his New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO, a Christian tourist destination for the participating families. He sneers at the camera as representing a blue state enemy and prays for a Christian Supreme Court. (Haggard cynically advises preacher-aspirant Levi that he can “use that kid thing until you’re 30, then you’ll have to focus on content.”)

The political ramifications are so clear that the film is at its weakest when it clumsily and somewhat unnecessarily attempts to establish a larger, ominous context. Made in 2005, the film opens with radio news announcing the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and closes with hosannas by radio preachers for Justice Samuel Alito’s confirmation.

Eschewing the PBS talking-head experts approach to counter the glowing charismatics, substantial screen time is given instead to attacks by Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, who brings litigation skills as he takes on callers, including Pastor Fischer. Much better historical, political and theological background is provided in Calvin Skaggs and David Van Taylor’s informative 2004 documentary With God On Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America, which includes interviews with leading evangelicals and politicians. But when the filmmakers let the children, parents and pastors talk and pray, they provide a fascinating window into the everyday world of the growing Christian evangelical community in the Midwest. Nora Lee Mandel
September 22, 2006



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