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Jesus Camp   B

Magnolia Pictures / A&E IndieFilms

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Cast: Becky Fischer, Mike Papantonio.

Review by Rob Vaux

As one who has embraced the inky void of secular humanism, I expected Jesus Camp to send me into foaming fits of white-hot rage -- so much so that I begged off multiple entreaties to attend press screenings and ended up catching it almost on a whim when it opened here in L.A. The results surprised me. A polemic, it certainly isn't... though various tools on both sides of the political divide have already weighed in on the filmmakers' motivations. Like any hot-button movie, people tend to see what they want to see in Heidi Ewing's and Rachel Grady's look at the Kids on Fire Christian youth camp in rural North Dakota -- which makes it perfect fodder for a healthy discussion. In that sense, the directors have done their job admirably, making Jesus Camp both topical and constructive in our current cultural climate. Simply put, it feels less like a condemnation of fundamentalist Christianity and more a simple observation of its beliefs.

Admittedly, those beliefs fall well within the lunatic fringe, a fact that their recent political resurgence renders supremely ominous. Pastor Becky Fisher, the redoubtably cheerful leader of Kids on Fire, hides a remarkably sophisticated agenda behind the usual cocktail of fundamentalist philosophy. Many of the children sent to her program are homeschooled, their parents having pulled them from the public system once the public system pulled prayer from its classrooms. Fisher refers to them as vessels to be filled, speaking quite calmly about imprinting them with her beliefs during the most impressionable periods of their lives. Her goal is to shape the future of her church and this country: a future where abortion is outlawed, evolution is debunked, and America is united as the Christian nation she and her fellows truly feel it was meant to be.

Ewing and Grady bend over backwards to keep the film evenhanded, though obviously their editorial decisions determine what we see, regardless of objective intent. Jesus Camp involves long sequences of Fisher admonishing the children, telling them to recant their sins, impressing upon them the horrors of the pro-choice agenda, and, in one surreal moment, having them kneel and pray before a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. The children seem eager to be a part of her process. A few dark faces stand out amid a sea of freckled blondes: some of them speaking in tongues, many with tears in their eyes. One cannot say without looking at the entirety of raw footage how the filmmakers chose to spin this, but the bear-baiting rhetoric of Michael Moore and his ilk is nowhere to be seen. The tone is clinical and detached, allowing Fisher and her charges to enunciate their beliefs without interference. A periodic attempt at balance appears in the form of left-wing Christian radio host Mike Papantonio, but frankly, the device is more intrusive than illuminating -- cutting away from the film's true focus.

In fact, Jesus Camp is not especially illuminating for those with any knowledge about religion on the far right. The worldview displayed here has been well-documented, and one hopes that even a modicum of tolerance or logic is enough to reveal its staggering hypocrisies. The film's strengths emerge in its willingness to listen (if not agree), and to give Pastor Fisher and her flock plenty of rope to hang themselves with. Omitted words or sinister phrases speak volumes about their beliefs, rendered in their own words and unvarnished by outside spin. Fisher, for example, speaks in admiring terms of Islamic terrorists who are willing to die for their faith, and feels it an absolute necessity to breed Christians capable of the same self-sacrifice. (She fails to note, however, that those extremists aren't just willing to die for Islam; they're willing to kill for Islam... and by implication her little Christian warriors should be willing to do the same.) Similar terms crop up in her speeches -- terms like "battle," "war," and "soldiers" -- while the malleability of the children under her care emerges in her calculated explanations of how to hook their minds. American flags are sprinkled liberally throughout clothing and ornaments: reminders that their mission extends to more than just their own community.

The children themselves become almost extensions of this philosophy. Their eyes betray an unnerving certainty, couched in the arguments lent to them by parents and preachers alike. It would be far less reprehensible had their status as political pawns been less naked. Many of them speak of becoming "warriors of God" -- their faces painted with camouflage during camp skits -- while the more charismatic are sent out on street corners to harangue the unbelievers. The most chilling scene places them on the steps of the Supreme Court, led by adults who praise the wisdom of the pro-life agenda as voiced by nine-year-old mouths. The film pays particular attention to a young man named Levi, singled out for special attention and periodically given the microphone to extol the other children about the virtues of faith. (The cameras catch him in one contemplative moment as he admits that non-Christians make him feel "yucky inside," leading one to wonder yet again how such bigotry could arise from 1) a child, and 2) someone professing to follow the teachings of Christ.)

And yet strangely, such episodes never inflame the emotions the way a more biased film might. As unsettling as the subjects can sometimes be, their message isn't goosed or exacerbated, but rather voiced by their own lips -- allowing the viewer to absorb and contemplate what they have to say unmolested. Can one find common ground with people whose faith is so totally ingrained that nothing will shake it? Unlikely, but at least Jesus Camp posits the necessity of trying -- a blessed change from the vitriol currently dominating our national debate. As for fears of Pastor Fisher's army, or the cultural transformation they seem bent on enacting, the film lends hope there too -- emerging, like so much else, from the subjects themselves. For all their faith, for all their piety, and for all their professed desire to do good, the word that best describes them all is prideful... and the book they love so much says a lot about what that usually precedes.

Review published 10.01.2006.

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