‘Jesus Camp’: the education of young evangelical Christians
September 27, 2006
Heidi Ewing says that when she and her filmmaking partner Rachel Grady went looking for a subject for a documentary, their search was not motivated by politics, religious beliefs, or a desire to tilt the board of societal trends. As with their well-received 2005 film “The Boys of Baraka,” about a group of inner-city American kids who attend seventh grade in Kenya, Ewing and Grady were looking to explore a distinct corner of the world and further their own education.”We make films because we’re curious about things,” said Ewing by phone. “We don’t take a topic and try to make it true or false. We try to understand it.””Jesus Camp,” Ewing and Grady’s new film about the educating of young evangelical Christians, is convincing proof of that approach. “Jesus Camp” will remind no one of the recent spate of polemic documentaries: Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” or producer Robert Greenwald’s series of video bashes of the Bush administration (“Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election”), Fox News (“Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism”) and Wal-Mart (“Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price”). There is no narrator, standing in for the filmmakers to offer a challenge to the facts and opinions stated by their opponents; no graphics scroll across the screen in “gotchya” fashion, as is the style of today’s overtly argumentative documentaries.”We didn’t think we’d be doing anyone any favors by taking a firebrand attitude, to have a very, very obvious position,” said Ewing, whose film screens today at the Wheeler Opera House as part of Aspen Filmfest 2006. (It also had a screening yesterday in Carbondale, and opens in national release Oct. 6.) “People want to learn, to be provoked, to take away something from the theater.”
And yet, at least some of the filmmakers’ voice seeps off the screen. Depending on your religious and political makeup going into the theater, it may even jump off the screen. Mostly what Ewing and Grady want viewers to take away from the film is a warning: that there is a large swath of middle Americans who are as politically ambitious as they are religiously devoted. And they are more motivated to shape society to their liking than their secular, coastal counterparts.”The point of view is, take notice,” said Ewing, who was raised Catholic. (Grady is Jewish.) “Don’t be isolated. Don’t sit in your bubble and think this is irrelevant to your life. The flyover country is on the move and has some plans in reshaping our culture. And the rest of the country should pay attention.”That, however, is the offscreen voice of the filmmaker. Onscreen, Ewing and Grady present a far more tempered tone and perspective.The vast majority of the screen time in “Jesus Camp” is given to a group of young Evangelicals, from toddler to kids in their early teens, just doing their thing: living at home in Missouri, attending a summer camp in North Dakota, and worshipping at a megachurch in Colorado Springs. The two figures who get the most attention are Becky Fischer, an upbeat cheerleader for the Christian God who runs the Kids on Fire camp (in Devil’s Lake, N.D., of all places), and 12-year-old Levi, an aspiring and promising, evangelist. At first, these people seem as innocuous as they are devout. But as they film proceeds, reasons for concern – at least to those who believe in a secular, pluralist society – issue from their own mouths. Fischer speaks of taking back America for Christ; Levi reveals that being in the presence of anyone who has not been saved, as he has been, makes him feel icky.The only voice countering these views is that of Mike Papantonio. Papantonio is a Christian talk-show host, but one who believes his faith is being overrun by the hard-core evangelical movement. Scenes of Papantonio on the radio, expressing his belief in the dangers of mixing politics and religion, appear occasionally, and we recognize him as the moderating voice, more or less, of the filmmakers. But in an early version of the film, Ewing and Grady didn’t even see the need for such an alternative viewpoint.
“We watched the film, and it had a flatness to it,” said Ewing of the version without Papantonio. “You couldn’t determine the stakes. People would say something, and it would float into the ether. It lost its power because nobody expressed their dissent. There was no sense of what was at stake.”Much of the power of “Jesus Camp” comes from how firm its balanced stance is. Ewing says she and Grady “agonized” to keep a judgmental tone out of the film, and they even stripped the soundtrack from the final edit, “to all audiences to decide for themselves.”The secular audience will likely approve of the cautionary tone it hears in the film (and echoed in Ewing’s offscreen statements). Scenes of a blow-up President Bush on the church pulpit, children rolling on the floor, speaking in tongues, and a fairytalelike presentation demonstrating the evil of abortion to a crowd including preadolescents can seem like a form of ridicule. But evangelicals might well have the opposite take and praise such methods of indoctrination. Becky Fischer seems to approve of the film; she appeared with the directors on a morning talk show – all parties sitting, without rancor, on the same couch – this past week. And while Fischer says “Jesus Camp” doesn’t present the entire picture, she seems comfortable with the snapshot it does capture.”She believed we would give her a fair shake,” said Ewing, who screened “The Boys of Baraka” for Fischer. “She was surprised that secular people would have any interest in what she was doing.”
The Rev. Ted Haggard feels differently. The pastor of Colorado Springs’ New Life Church and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Haggard appears toward the end of the film, preaching to his congregation, speaking with young evangelicals and talking directly to the camera. Haggard said, in a recent story in The Denver Post, that the film “demonizes” the charismatic Christian movement. He has told his congregation not to see “Jesus Camp.”If Ewing is wary of her subject, she also expresses admiration for the evangelicals in “Jesus Camp.””I’m fascinated by it,” she said. “The kids are fantastic – charming, funny. You can find them scary, but there’s a lot to like. They’re doing what they think God wants them to do, and they’re earnest in that. It’s charming.”People get upset about the film. But they’re using democracy the way we’ve set it up to remake the culture how they want. That’s legal. And that’s powerful. While most people are sleeping, these people are organizing.”Making “Jesus Camp” is, in a way, Ewing and Grady’s own form of peaceful assembly. Ewing says she believes in the separation of church and state, and she is not shy about saying there is an agenda behind the film. That purpose, however, is not to demonize, but to shed light and understanding on a potent, influential force in America.
“We believe this is relevant and important and will affect people in ways they don’t realize,” she said of the evangelical tide. “You can only counter it with your own movement.”Given the weight of the subject, Ewing recognizes that “Jesus Camp” will incite emotions on all sides. For that, she offers no apologies.”This isn’t anthropology,” she said. “It’s not like watching a movie about camel herders, where you say, it’s interesting, how quaint. Everyone will have an opinion about the movie.””Jesus Camp” shows at noon today at the Wheeler as part of Aspen Filmfest. For a full schedule, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/film.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org