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WGUC Reviews

Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp
Loki Films
Rated PG-13
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.


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