The first children we see in Jesus Camp, a documentary about youth ministries on the far-right end of white, evangelical Christian culture, are adorned in camo and war paint. They're performing a play at the Christ Triumphant Church in Lee's Summit, Missouri, promising their God, "I'll do what you want me to do," and readying themselves to "radically lay down their lives for the gospel" as children "in Pakistan or Palestine" are doing for Islam, in the words of Pentecostal youth minister Becky Fischer. War analogies, we quickly learn, are legion in this little corner of the religious world.
Fischer is Jesus Camp's hero or villain, depending on your perspective, and though filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (whose Boys of Baraka screened in Memphis earlier this year) have apparently made pains to get their film shown in evangelical-friendly communities, if you're seeing Jesus Camp at all, you're probably preconditioned to see Fischer as a villain.
Though it may not want to be, Jesus Camp is an art-house horror movie for secular liberals, a bias telegraphed by the odd, unnecessary inclusion of Air America radio host Mike Papantonio in a framing device that gives urban libs a mirror to reflect their horrified reaction back at them.
At the heart of the movie are Fischer and three elementary-aged kids who attend her Kids on Fire summer camp in North Dakota, where kids clutch tiny plastic fetuses, pray about (not, crucially, to) a cardboard Dubya, and sing and dance to evangelical hip-hop ("kickin' it for Christ") at sessions that evolve into admonishing, tear-filled confessions. (There are, apparently, "no phonies in God's army.")
One boy, Levi, is an aspiring pre-teen preacher who was saved at age 5 because, he says, he "just wanted more out of life." Tori is a Christian heavy-metal fan, first seen break dancing in her bedroom. Most compelling is Rachael, a mousy, excitable, and preternaturally self-possessed 9-year-old. She explains that she'd like to be a manicurist because it seems like a great opportunity to proselytize to the unconverted all day.
Jesus Camp likes these kids, and you probably will too, even as Rachael strolls up to strangers at the bowling alley or on the street to attempt a conversion. And because you like them so much, it's painful to watch them manipulated or discouraged from thinking. It's rattling to watch small children coaxed into tears of religious ecstasy over matters they can barely understand. And it's infuriating to watch a kid as bright as Levi being home-schooled from a book called Exploring Creation with Physical Science and learning that creationism provides "the only possible answer to all the questions" and "science doesn't prove anything."
Which is why, though Ewing and Grady might like their film to be an evenhanded examination (and, if so, why spike it with monologues from an Air America host?), it's really an exposé -- shoddily filmed and poorly thought out but helplessly riveting.
Opening Friday, November 3rd