“Jesus Camp,” from documakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (“Boys of Baraka”), may shock many viewers, especially political liberals, when it shows children speaking in tongues, their faces glowing with ecstasy and tears running down their cheeks. Liberals might also be alarmed by images of 7-year-olds in camouflage face-paint performing spiritual war dances at summer camp and little hands reaching out to bless a cardboard cut-out of President George W. Bush in the hope of cinching a pro-life Supreme Court appointment. A&E Indie Films production could rouse brisk theatrical interest before hitting TV.
Like the filmmakers’ award-winning “Boys of Baraka,” “Jesus Camp” examines the relationship between education and social context. But whereas in “Boys,” at-risk kids were taken out of toxic environments and placed in more supportive surroundings, here the children of Evangelicals, many of them home-schooled, are sent to “Kids on Fire,” a camp which confirms and intensifies their beliefs.
The three main featured campers, 12-year-old Levi, 9-year-old Rachel and 10-year-old Tory, are shown playing Christian combat video games and expressing their love for Jesus with genuine fervor.
The camp’s likeable founder, Becky Fischer, talks about her mission to indoctrinate children to form an army of proselytizers to “take back America for Christ.”
Fischer, who boasts she can “go into a playground of kids that don’t know anything about Christianity and lead them to the Word in no time at all,” is surely a formidable salesperson. Using visual aids such as little plastic fetuses to appeal to raw emotion and healthy doses of guilt to evoke religious rapture, Fischer is always focused on her mission.
Though opposing viewpoints are sporadically proffered by Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, a practicing Christian appalled by the fundamentalists’ political agenda, the film employs no exposition and professes no overt bias; indeed, Fischer was apparently delighted with the finished product. Both the camp’s children and the adults welcome the camera as a witness to their crusade.
The sole exception to this transparency comes during a church service led by Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelists, which purports to represent 30 million people. He directly addresses the lens with “joke” threats and calls to repentance. Haggard, who reportedly speaks to Bush and his advisers every Monday, assertively informs the filmmakers that Evangelists can deliver any election.
Tech credits are accomplished. Filmmakers’ total access to the camp allows a wide range of camera-angles, which lensers exploit to excellent effect.