Preteen Christian warriors wearing camouflage make-up and dressed in combat fatigues brandish swords in a bizarre choreographed dance. A 10-year old girl weeps in a trance-like spiritual bliss, looking up to the sky. A 12-year old boy speaks in tongues. Children touch a cardboard effigy of President Bush while a massive church prays to guide his righteous political decisions. Children’s pastor Becky Fischer leads an enraptured congregation in a chant: “This means war! This means war!”
It sounds like a parody of religious zealots—something out of a typically over-the-top episode of “South Park.” But it’s not. There is an evangelical summer camp for children actually named “Kids on Fire” and it meets annually in a city actually called Devil’s Lake in North Dakota.
|When the Children Cry|
The disturbing new documentary “Jesus Camp” is a portrait of an organized evangelical America that is recruiting its youngest and most enthusiastic prodigies for a war against eroding cultural values. Whitney Houston may believe that the children are our future, but Becky Fischer is determined to indoctrinate them well and let them lead the way. Although Fischer herself denies it in a phone interview late in the film, this battle is a decidedly political one.
The film also follows a born again 12-year old named Levi who is a budding young preacher. His mother homeschools him in fundamentalist ideology (like the belief that global warming is not a problem), since she doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state. Levi eventually travels to a megachurch that’s bigger than a Wal-Mart to get some one-on-one time with Ted Haggard, an evangelical lobbyist who confers weekly with President Bush.
There are numerous fly-on-the-wall moments in “Jesus Camp,” but directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady do not commit completely to the cinema verite style that observes without comment. For a movie that features direct address interviews, however, the amount of seemingly candid scenes captured on film is pretty amazing.
Other times, the camera’s presence serves to make an uncomfortable situation even more uncomfortable, like when a precocious 10-year old named Rachel forces herself, out of duty to God, to hand out religious tracts to annoyed strangers in public. No fictionalized scene could ever capture the sad mix of purposefulness and bewilderment in that poor young girl.
Partially because it is without narration, the movie is predominantly even-handed. One can make up their own mind about Fischer and her students. Are these kids being brainwashed or do they simply have an uncommonly fervent bond with God? The filmmakers avoid muckraking and let the events unfold on their own—for the most part.
|Speak no evil|
In a misguided effort to show the other side of the argument, Air America talk radio DJ Mike Papantonio appears intermittently to offset the gung ho religiosity and numerous audio clips of conservative news and point-of-views that serve as the film’s tableau. Because he is addressing political issues directly, it undermines the effect of the rest of the movie, which allows you to witness the uninhibited behavior of its subjects and draw your own conclusions. Plus, it’s not the strongest visual choice to watch a guy with a face for radio sitting in front of a microphone.
An ill-advised, monotone score also adds unneeded menace to some scenes where it is unwarranted. In a movie where Fischer compares her recruitment of young fundamentalist kids to Palestinian children who are turned into holy war terrorists, there is no ominous music needed. About her young charges, she says, “I want to see them as radically laying down their lives for the gospel.”
“Jesus Camp” takes place during conservative Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination and eventual confirmation to the Supreme Court last winter. This firmly places the story in the context of a seemingly unstoppable, sweeping conservative atmosphere. Given the changes brought on by recent midterm election results, there is the side effect of making the movie seem a little like yesterday’s news. One thing is for certain, though. These evangelical warriors aren’t giving up on their holy mission anytime soon.