Jesus Camp (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Many movies skirt the question of how the growing influence of Evangelical Christians as a voting block is impacting politics. Jesus Camp, from co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys from Baraka) plunges headfirst into these murky waters. The resulting production is both disturbing and enlightening. In addition to providing a first-hand view of this landscape, it raises a question that will earn Jesus Camp the label of "controversial": to what extent does the indoctrination undergone by the children depicted in this film cross over the line into child abuse?

25% of Americans describe themselves as Evangelical Christians, but not all those men and women will identify with the subjects of Jesus Camp. Yet, while Ewing and Grady have chosen to investigate the charismatic wing of Protestant Christianity, this is no mere lunatic fringe. 30 million people identify themselves with the groups presented in this documentary (or ones like it). That's about 10% of the American population. Their political power and influence is growing, in part because they are less apathetic than most U.S. citizens when it comes to activism. This block of voters represented one of the major reasons George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004.

Jesus Camp is not a "hatchet job." The filmmakers did not go in with an anti-Christian agenda and use selective editing to prove their point. They are observers. Jesus Camp does not represent an attack on the Evangelical community. Ewing and Grady employ a "point-and-shoot" philosophy. They allow the subjects of the documentary to guide where the film goes (perhaps, according to the saying, giving them enough rope to hang themselves). The principals of the film, including Pastor Becky Fischer (the main spokesperson for Evangelical Christianity here), are pleased with the final result. They do not believe they have been misrepresented.

The term "brainwashing" is a loaded word, but it's impossible to avoid. We are presented with three children - Levi (age 13), Rachel (age 10), and Tori (age 11) - whose every waking moment is steeped in exposure to extremist doctrine. At one point, Pastor Becky comments that she wishes fundamentalist Christians would show the same kind of devotion as fundamentalist Muslims. She's not advocating suicide bombings or terrorist attacks (although one has to wonder how she feels about those who use violence to attack abortion clinics), but it's not a point that should be taken lightly. Evangelical Christians believe they are involved in a spiritual battle and they are raising the next generation of God's army. All of this warlike language should be enough to raise question marks, especially from a religion whose founder was a man of peace.

Air America commentator Mike Papantonio, who appears while doing his radio show, raises several important points, but the most forceful of his comments relates to the selectivity with which Evangelicals pick doctrines that are important to them. Instead of attending to passages like the Sermon on the Mount and prohibitions to "judge not," they follow a war-mongering leader (Bush) whose decisions have resulted in the deaths of thousands. If Jesus represents love, why do some Evangelicals seem to be filled with hatred and intolerance?

The bulk of the movie follows Levi, Rachel, Tori, and others as they go to the "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota. (What a name!) There, day and night, they are taught to be better soldiers in the army of God. They are encouraged to repudiate sin, hate abortion, pray for George Bush (a cardboard cutout of the President is provided), and re-dedicate themselves to spreading the word of God. They have charismatic moments when tears stream from their eyes as they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and some of them speak in tongues. Jesus Camp loses its focus when it follows the children back into the "real world." The directors seem uncertain how much of their everyday lives should be filmed and what is relevant, but when the cameras are at the camp, the moments they capture are riveting.

One individual's definition of "good parenting" is another's definition of "abuse." We see this all the time. Years ago, a spanking with a belt or a wooden spoon was considered a standard tool of child rearing. Now, some consider corporal punishment to be unacceptable. The unspoken question that looms over Jesus Camp is whether the indoctrination of Levi, Rachel, and Tori falls under the definition of "good parenting" or "abuse." There is no easy question to answer, but a case can be made for the latter. Jesus Camp presents a snapshot of what these children endure in the name of their faith (although they would not agree with the word "endure"), and it is at times eye-opening.

From a technical standpoint, Jesus Camp is not the best made documentary I have seen. In fact, it's a little sloppy. The editing is at times questionable and the camera work is merely adequate. (One would assume budgetary restrictions played a part.) This is a case in which style has been sacrificed for content, and it's an acceptable trade-off. Jesus Camp is worth seeing because of what it says, not because of how it looks, although it may be a better choice for TV viewing than an excursion to a theater. (It was made for the A&E Television Network, so it will presumably air in the near future.) Based on the reaction I have sampled, Evangelical Christians who belong to charismatic churches see this as a fair minded representation of their beliefs. Others are unsettled. That difference speaks volumes about the religious division in America today, and if Jesus Camp is right, we're not on the road to bridging that gap.

Jesus Camp (United States, 2006)

Director: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Cast: Becky Fischer, Mike Papantonio
Cinematography: Mira Chang and Jenna Rosher
Music: Force Theory
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-13
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1