Review by: Larry Thomas
Documentary filmmakers approach their craft in different ways. Some of them take
the humorous route, as the subject may warrant the laughs. Others go for the gut-wrenching,
no holds barred style so the viewer feels a major emotional jolt. Still others
twist and turn and edit and narrate to make the subject fit their vision
and opinion, despite any distortion of accuracy.
Then there are those who take the straight-on, low-key approach and let the
subject of the film supply all the statements, so the audience may draw its
own conclusions. This is what co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have
done with JESUS CAMP. There's no narration, and just a few identifying
titles. Otherwise, it's a cinema verité look at three kids and
a summer camp run by evangelicals to convert children to Christ.
The film follows these three Missouri kids from evangelical Christian homes,
and how it affects their lives. Evangelist Becky Fischer runs the camp, plans
the activities and lessons, and really seems to have the right stuff to interact
with her young charges. She's affable and interested. In the course of
all the preaching and praying, Becky, the other adult leaders, and even some
of the children lapse into speaking in tongues. Is this inspiration, or some
form of cult?
12-year-old Levi sports a rat-tailed mullet and can already preach a sermon
like he knows where both the audience and the camera is. He claims to have been
saved at age five, and has been preaching ever since. 10-year-old Tory cries
a lot when she's overcome with the feeling. And 9-year-old Rachel is cute,
smart, and outgoing. She uses her winning personality to approach a total stranger
at a bowling alley to deliver God's message.
There are a few scenes with Air America radio host Mike Papantonio on the air
in order to add conflict, or, if you will, balance, to the mix. He seems a tad
strident and nowhere nearly as charismatic as his Christian counterparts. But
that's ok, as the film is not about him.
While at the so-called "Jesus Camp" these kids study the bible, talk about
religion, and live their lives as if there's no other life for them... ever.
Interestingly enough, the actual name of the camp is "Kids on Fire" which is
held in Devil's Lake, North Dakota. Symbolic? Coincidence? Or just plain funny?
During the camp, the kids are bombarded with messages about the pro-life movement,
how they should pray for the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme
Court, how their religion should play a role in politics, and the evils of homosexuality.
There's a scene where they recite a pledge of allegiance to President
Bush. Information? Intolerance? Or brainwashing?
JESUS CAMP shows the reality of a small portion of the Christian evangelical
movement, and exposes us to a world that few outside the circle really get a
chance to experience. While you may doubt the motives of the adults, and can
certainly question if these kids are totally committed, or just seeking approval
from their parents and peers, their sincerity seems genuine. And no matter how
you feel about the whole movement and their intentions, these are likeable people.
But one of the many terrific things about America is that no one is required
to believe in any one thing, be it a religion, or a government, or any particular
god. Even believing in nothing is ok here. It's your choice,
and no other religion or government, or person, has the right to tell you your
choice is wrong.