Kidding around with the Christian right
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady
Jesus Camp, the new documentary from Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka), has become highly controversial among Christians. Apparently, dedicated lovers of Jesus feel the film portrays them as ultraconservative, right-wing wackos. Interestingly enough, the specific subject of the film, evangelical youth minister Becky Fischer, is just fine with the end product--perhaps because she is an ultraconservative right-wing wacko.
Despite some of the ire it has generated, Jesus Camp follows the recent trend of subtle, narration-free documentaries that steer clear of heavy-handed polemic and simply let their subjects speak for themselves. (See also: The War Tapes, My Country My Country.) The film follows the ministry of Becky Fischer, a Pentacostal preacher from Kansas who runs a summer camp for Christian kids in North Dakota. This isn’t your ordinary “sing songs around the campfire and make Biblical bookmarks” camp either. This is a fire-
Fischer is a perfect subject for a documentary because she believes wholeheartedly in her cause and is anything but camera shy. Despite Fischer’s enthusiasm in the project, it doesn’t take long for the film to turn into this year’s most frightening horror story. Early on, Fischer talks rather jealously about radical Muslims, who train their children from infancy to become suicide bombers. Though she stops short of espousing any sort of violence, Fischer’s church is clearly here to train “spiritual warriors” who are “willing to die for God.” This, my friends, is the face of the Christian right. And, boy howdy, is it scary.
It would seem easy to write off the kids under Fischer’s sway as redneck Stepford children. But, as the film quickly demonstrates, it’s not that simple. The film’s two main moppets are surprisingly complex. At 10, bug-cute Rachel dreams of becoming a manicurist ... because that way you’ve got the perfect captive audience for proselytizing. Twelve-year-old Levi, on the other hand, is a budding child minister who speaks like an adult and has charisma to burn. In 10 years time, he’ll either be leading a very large congregation or shooting people from a clock tower. Are these home-schooled wannabe martyrs intelligent, well-adjusted youngsters, or have they been robbed of their childhoods by some none-too-subtle brainwashing? It’s a debatable point, depending on which side of this social and religious schism you find yourself.
Ewing and Grady aren’t out to make a Christian-bashing film. The film doesn’t trivialize its subject or exploit the children it checks in on. It simply lets people speak for themselves. And what they have to say is fairly frightening. (The ominous music does kinda tip the scales, though.) The filmmakers do try to present a “rational” religious perspective by interspersing a radio call-in show by practicing Methodist and Air America host Mike Papantonio. (OK, so Papantonio isn’t exactly the most conservative of voices, but his worries about Fischer creating “Christian soldiers for the Republican Party” seem pretty valid.) For her part, Fischer claims to be politics-free ... which doesn’t exactly explain why the camp brings a cardboard cutout of President Bush on stage for campers to praise and pray for.
Honestly, any group that regards George W. Bush as a holy man and Horton Hears a Who! as an anti-abortion tract is enough to send the hair on the back of my neck skyward. Forget Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and The Grudge 2. This film scared the bejeezus out of me.
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