Jesus Camp, a documentary about children at an Evangelical Christian summer camp with a decidedly conservative political agenda, has an unusual back-story.
The filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka), received cooperation from Pentecostal children's minister Becky Fischer to record the goings-on at her "Kids on Fire" camp -- as well as to follow three children who attend. The children, from different Missouri families, are Levi, Rachael and Tory -- good, well-behaved kids.
Amazingly and too ironic to be coincidental, this camp is located in Devils Lake, N.D. This is a place where children learn that charismatic-style religion and conservative politics are intertwined in the eyes of their adult authority figures. They pray to a cardboard cutout of President Bush, are warned about the witchcraft in Harry Potter and ghost stories and are encouraged to get into such an intense, trancelike state while worrying about abortion that they suffer crying fits and mini-breakdowns. To Fischer, they are capable of becoming child preachers helping to recruit for her cause.
She expresses her agenda militantly and even militaristically, comparing her task to that of Palestinians (Islamic fundamentalists, presumably) using their camps to teach their children to sacrifice themselves in a war for control of the Holy Land.
With an agenda like that, one would think Fischer an immediately scary figure -- like Robert Mitchum's portrayal of a homicidal preacher in Night of the Hunter stalking children with "Love" tattooed on one hand and "Hate" on the other.
But because she actually is an engaging and outgoing person, as are the children and their parents, the filmmakers and their distributor Magnolia Pictures decided to open Jesus Camp in the red-state heartland first. Presumably, they thought other Evangelicals would like this portrait. Fischer, herself, is supportive of the film.
But an interesting thing happened. A Colorado Springs religious leader, the Rev. Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals, blasted the movie and encouraged others not to see it. Haggard is in the film, a sequence in which the three children attend a service at his huge church. He has said in the press that he opposes Jesus Camp because it gives a distorted view of the Evangelical movement by concentrating on a fringe wing.
The film has done poorly in those heartland locations, but in larger cities it's attracting a far bigger and different audience. There, many see it as the latest muckraking exposé -- along the lines of Fahrenheit 9/11 or Why We Fight -- of the secretive right-wing network that has allowed a polarizing president to maintain power and push his agenda. In particular, they say, this shows how some Christian conservatives indoctrinate their kids to the point of child abuse.
Removing politics from the equation, the film might also remind those concerned about religious teaching practices of the disturbing The Devil's Playground from a few years back. That showed how the Amish encourage their children to drop out of school as soon as possible so they don't learn anything contradictory to the faith.
Unlike Fahrenheit, Jesus Camp isn't a leftist essay and doesn't have flippantly editorialist comic montages. It observes its subjects with little if any commentary or directorial intrusion, although it has an awful score that seems to want to make every scene ominous and foreboding.
Ewing and Grady's role models here are the more traditionally straightforward, vérité-style documentarians like Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers, especially the latter's portrait of door-to-door Bible peddlers, Salesman.
They do break away from their narrative to include on-air commentary from Air America radio personality Mike Papantonio, whose show "Ring of Fire" frequently targets the conservative Christian movement. (He is an active Methodist.)
This provides a balance of sorts -- it shows there's a more mainstream Christian view of American values than what is being espoused in the film. But Jesus Camp would benefit from more background information on where charismatic Pentecostalism, Evangelical Christianity and conservative Christianity intersect and where they diverge.
Still, putting all that aside, it's hard to watch the scenes at the camp where these kids are pushed to tears and beyond by the adults and not ask, "What in God's name is going on?" This doesn't look like proper religious education. And it's heartbreaking to see sweet Rachael, for instance, wander up to strangers like a beggar seeking a handout as she clumsily tries to convert or recruit them.
It should be noted here that the parents of the children are articulate and sincere. They worry about their children in a society driven by crass pop culture and the act of violence that they consider abortion to be. And they fear that secularism might be why that culture has gotten so extreme.
They home-school their children at least partly to protect them. Their aim is true. They're practicing their freedom of religion.
Yet you have to wonder: Are the children also benefiting from freedom of religion? Or -- especially at the "Jesus camp" spotlighted in the film -- are they being browbeaten and brainwashed? The more you think about it, the more troubling it is. Grade: B+