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Jesus Camp follows several young children as they prepare to attend a summer camp where the kids will get their daily dose of evangelical Christianity. Becky Fischer works at the camp, which is named Kids on Fire. Through interviews with Fischer, the children, and others, Jesus Camp illustrates the unswerving belief of the faithful. A housewife and homeschooling mother tells her son that creationism has all the answers. Footage from inside the camp shows young children weeping and wailing as they promise to stop their sinning. Child after child is driven to tears. Juxtapose these scenes with clips from a more moderate Christian radio host (who is appalled by such tactics), and Jesus Camp seems to pose a clear question: are these children being brainwashed? Written by
Ken Miller <email@example.com>
Since the making of the film, Becky Fischer, children's pastor for Kids on Fire, announced that due to negative reactions to the camp after the film, including telephone calls and vandalism, the camp, which was held once a year for three weeks, has been discontinued indefinitely and will be replaced by other events. See more »
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A fascinating look into evangelical subculture through the eyes of children
I saw this film at SilverDocs, a documentary film festival at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring. It's excellent, and I highly recommend it.
The basic storyline follows a year in the lives of three children from evangelical Christian families in Missouri, and focuses considerably on their experience at an evangelical summer camp ("Kids on Fire" in Devil's Lake, ND). The kids, 12-year-old Levi, 10-year-old Tory, and 9-year-old Rachel are, of course, endearing in their cuteness, but frightening in their fervor. Levi thinks that he will become a pastor, and his preaching to kids is starkly reminiscent of the Bible thumpers of Sunday morning TV. At camp, Tory is shown several times with tears streaming down her face, not least when a pro-life leader comes and distributes miniature plastic fetuses to illustrate the evil of abortion and again when many kids at camp begin speaking in tongues. Rachel, a nine-year-old evangelist, walks up to perfect strangers to ask them if they believe they're going to heaven and whether they would like to talk about Jesus. In short, the kids are the perfect spokespeople for the Jesus movement.
The documentary goes beyond their experiences at camp and paints a vivid image of the evangelical subculture in middle America. From scenes with a mother home schooling her son on the lunacy of evolution to kids at camp praying fervently for a cardboard cutout of George W Bush, the tenacious beliefs of the subjects and their utter lack of doubt is striking. The infusion of politics into religion is also notable, as the children are told of the evils of homosexuality, that prayer in school is necessary for schools to teach effectively, and that America is responsible for the deaths of fifty million innocent children since 1973. The families even travel to Washington to protest in front of the Supreme Court building.
The most awkward parts of the movie were scenes with Mike Papantonio, an Air America radio host. I felt the scenes involving him seemed a little forced, although a conversation at the end between the charismatic camp director, Becky Fischer, and Papantonio was an interesting microcosm of the larger political debate in this country. Interestingly, during a film festival question and answer session with the producers (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady), they indicated that Papantonio was a late addition to the film because without him, there was no conflict. The people in the film were so sure of their beliefs that nothing in the movie showed them wavering. I wonder if the film might not have been stronger if they had left that sense of certainty alone.
Ewing and Grady also chose to use the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court as a thread to tie the film together. Unfortunately, none of the subjects of the documentary spent much time talking directly about the Supreme Court. They talked about some of the issues that the Supreme Court might deal with, but the nomination of judges didn't seem to be a big factor in their lives. There were a few scenes in which radio announcers and guest speakers at the camp encouraged the families to pray for the nomination of judges who agree with evangelical Christians, but I didn't think that there was enough to hold that particular thread together.
During the question and answer session, Ewing and Grady indicated that while they were both fairly secular, big city Democrats, they honestly liked the people in the documentary. In their view, the people in the documentary followed the law, and they worked to make the country better as they saw it, so what's wrong with that? They expressed interest in making a follow-up movie in five years to see whether the kids' faith survives puberty. It would certainly be an interesting experiment. They indicated that Fischer and the families that were profiled had seen the final project and thought that it was a fair representation of their lives. Fischer even thought that she could use it as an evangelical tool! At the same time, the audience I saw it with was overwhelmingly liberal and they also reacted positively (and, I'll say, with a fair degree of shock). To me, that says that Ewing and Grady did a nice job of ensuring that their biases did not show through into the movie, leaving audiences to read into it as they choose.
In sum, Jesus Camp is a movie that is worth watching. If you get a chance, see this film!
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