Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grading, Jesus Camp is a jarring look into the lives of American Evangelical Fundamentalists. It focuses around a summer camp for children run by those from the Pentecostal stream of the broad Christian spectrum whilst also giving glimpses into the day to day lives of the children and their families with a focus on three, Tory, Rachael and Levi.
The summer camp was the Kids on Fire School of Ministry, run by Becky Fisher of Kids in Ministry International and the film provides a look into the experiences of the children whilst at the camp. The purpose of the camp is to teach kids to become dedicated Christian soldiers in God’s army and to teach them how to ‘take back America for Christ’.
With the media coverage of the influence of the supposed religious right in the U.S.A and the influence they are reported to have had in the elections that saw President George Bush come to power, it is no surprise that one of the more extreme elements of this political machine would make it into a documentary, and what better group to focus on than the children, as people’s sympathies are always ignited by the way children are treated and developed.
The group we are exposed to are right wing Pentecostals with a focus on a militant form of faith. The language of militant force as related to faith is blatant and regular for the subjects of the documentary. They view life through a militant separatism that sees them engaged in a war against the forces of evil. These forces of evil exist on a separate spiritual plane, but are also exhibited in what they interpret as political evils, that which is mostly associated with ‘liberals’.
It is inevitable that such a documentary will polarise people. Naturally there will be those horrified by what they see as they encounter an unfamiliar way of life and there are those who will shout hallelujah, thinking the film does a good job of demonstrating godly fervour. Then there are the very real people whose lives the film delves into. Keep these real people in mind whether you be for or against what is shown in the film.
The documentary essentially provides an immersive experience for the viewer. No comment is made from a narrator or anyone that could overtly influence the way the viewer understands and interprets the subjects.
I am a fan of the immersive style of film that seeks to simply take a ‘snapshot’ of a subject and leave any conclusions up to the viewer. Jesus Camp almost gets there but not quite.
The reactions to the film are very interesting. As I suspected when I watched it, there are many who are very angry b what they have seen, but there are also those who would be in the same ‘camp’ as the subjects of the film who believe that it is a good portrayal of who they are, how they live and what they wish to achieve with their lives.
It seems that the directors have overtly stressed their impartiality towards the subjects and how they like them and still maintain contact with them. This may very well be true, but there are three things within the film that make this not completely immersive and free of bias, no matter how sincerely the directors may have tried.
When one watches this film, the viewer needs to notice three things, the editing, the soundtrack and the offering of a dissenting voice against the main subjects, a voice that caters for those watching the film who may be disturbed by the lives of the subjects.
The approach to the editing is completely subjective and cannot be critiqued adequately without access to material that did not end up in the final edit, suffice to say that decisions needed to made about what material stayed and what did not. The subjective interest and view of the director will always determine this. Understanding this means we can approach the film knowing that we are not getting a complete look at the lives of these people and we need to be aware of our own subjective interpretation of the pieces of the puzzle we are given and also be aware of where we may be filling the gaps with assumptions.
The soundtrack plays an important role in how we view what we are watching and therefore how we emotionally approach the subject. The soundtrack of Jesus Camp is often subtle, but it is most certainly there. The presence of a soundtrack stops this from being a completely objective, immersive experience.
In Jesus Camp, the music is often eerie, for want of a better descriptive word. It invokes an emotional response that makes the subjects seem somewhat weird (aside from their own actions and words), though the directors would swear this was not their intent… and I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. As with any film review, this is my subjective response.
Interestingly, there is also one lone, dissenting voice provided to the viewer in the form of a radio announcer who clearly takes issue with the religious right and its more extreme factions. He appears a few times, giving a voice in opposition to the main subjects. It is his voice that much of the viewing audience will relate to and sympathise with. The presence of this lone personality shows that this is not an entirely immersive or completely non biased film.
Those things aside, I think the directors have done a good job and the film deserves approval from either side of the argument, whether you count yourself alongside the subjects or not.
Having grown up with some of my childhood around such extreme expressions of the Pentecostal faith, many of the activities didn’t surprise me, what did strike me was the military expression of the faith. Interestingly, what I believe I witnessed was a melding of American military nationalism and the Christian faith. There were pledges to a Christian flag that I, in my whole life around Christianity, have never seen. This was a blatant copy of the American pledge of allegiance and thus an expression of the culture of American nationalism finding a way into the faith. They expressed their faith in militant forms that saw them as the protectors and upholders of the purity of the nation. They were raising up the children to act as soldiers protecting the country against evils, whatever form they may take.
As a person not acquainted with these forms of American culture, I found this very interesting. I personally don’t see or believe that such a melding of military nationalism and Christianity to be a healthy union at all.
I was also struck by what seemed to be a culture of fear. Fear of the outside world, fear of doing the wrong things, fear of liberals, fear of modern scientific endeavours and fear of anything that would encroach on their interpretation of the Christian faith That fear was very much expressed through the words of Becky Fisher, the camp director. I make that observation with the awareness that I was not privy to the whole of who Becky Fisher is and that there is probably much more to her, but I can only comment on what I was shown in the film.
There are many specific elements of the film that could be commented on, such as the condescending attitude of Ted Haggard as he was addressing one of the children, levi, and levi’s aspirations to become a preacher; the methods of evangelism the children were encouraged to pursue; Levi’s admission that he was a bit of a loner – worthy of noting since he seemed to be finding significance in the power of preaching – not a healthy place to form ones self esteem and confidence with people, encouraging the children to form strong opinions on topics they weren’t hearing both sides of and the list goes on.
Ultimately this was a stark look into a group of humanity some will find disturbing. Thankfully some of them have established a website to allow dialogue around the many issues the film touched on. On their website, the subjects take time to humbly and patiently address all people who have questions after encountering the film. On the site, I have only witnessed a heart from them worthy of commending. Whilst I don’t agree with their methods, approach and many aspects of their expression of the Christian faith, I recognise that these are still human beings who feel love, pain, joy, sadness and the many other emotions that us humans engage all the time and they get my affirmation in their willingness to patiently address all the criticisms being flung their way on the internet.
Remember as you watch this film, that you are only catching a small glimpse of a small part of who these people are. You aren’t seeing the day to day ins and outs of normal daily life that would show you their humanity that looks much the same as ours.
Jesus Camp will smack you between the eyes so do not approach it with an uncritical eye.
Reviewed by: Frank Ritchie.
Duration: 81 mins.
Genre: Documentary, Culture & Society.
Director: Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing.
Release Date: Available now.