Movie review by Greg Carlson
Documentary filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing have created an interesting product in “Jesus Camp,” a movie focused on very young Christian charismatic evangelicals and the one-sided worldview that drives their passionate belief in an inevitably politicized brand of religion. The directors always do their best to maintain fairness and balance in the telling, but the often incendiary arguments constructed by the movie’s subjects have a way of unnerving mainstream audience members who don’t buy “intelligent design” and aren’t ready to condemn Harry Potter to the stake.
Following a handful of devout children to Becky Fischer’s Devils Lake, North Dakota “Kids on Fire” camp and other places, the filmmakers mostly stand back and allow the voices of their subjects to provide the commentary. The contrary view is provided by Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, a self-described Christian who at one point engages Fischer in conversation on his program. Papantonio’s segments are dwarfed, however, by the amount of time the movie spends with Fischer, a pastor well-practiced in the art of staying on message. Viewers will be hard pressed to catch Fischer offering her young charges anything resembling legitimate choice, as that would allow too much room for possible dissent.
The three kids featured in the movie are by any account well-behaved, well-spoken, and well-mannered. Levi, whose awful mullet is surely a sin against fashionistas, wants desperately to be a preacher. Tory loves Christian heavy metal music, but occasionally worries that she might be dancing “for the flesh.” Little Rachael approaches strangers, Chick tracts in hand, asking them in an impossibly chipper voice whether they’ve considered where they will be spending eternity. All three of the kids, as well as Fischer, are mostly likable, which cannot be said for oily Reverend Ted Haggard, who appears in a scene. Shot prior to the sex and drugs scandal that toppled him from his position as the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, Haggard interacts with Levi, and his demeanor in the movie is standoffish, smug, and sarcastic. In light of Haggard’s recent newsworthiness, his presence in the documentary adds a new, if unintended, dimension to the film.
One of the most remarkable aspects of “Jesus Camp” is the sheer volume of guilt Fischer heaps on the shoulders of her tiny charges. Unquestionably, Fischer preaches with deep and abiding conviction that what she does helps and doesn’t harm, but the number of times shame is invoked as a teaching tool has a tendency to overshadow the values of love and compassion – which are eerily absent during the intense sessions that conjure up visions of a scarily personified Satan and all the temptations he offers.
Grady and Ewing clearly choose to withhold their point of view (though one can argue that it is implied), and that position of neutrality hampers some of the impact that the movie might have otherwise made. By remaining focused only on the chosen subjects, information regarding the history of the evangelical movement is absent. The result is a lack of context that doesn’t clearly offer viewers much beyond a colorful portrait of some unique people. To its credit, however, “Jesus Camp” manages to appeal to viewers on opposite ends of the political spectrum (for obviously different reasons), and the conversation it generates makes it very much worth seeing.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/27/06.