With a subject as delicate, personal and even as controversial as religion, the wisest choice “Jesus Camp” filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady make is to keep their voice and presence out of the film and let their subjects tell the story. Documentaries are always better with some kind of guiding force and a hint to the film’s intention, but as much as that’s missing from this film, it’s probably for the best.
“Jesus Camp” is one of those rare films that will likely resonate in positive ways for viewers with opposite viewpoints on the spectrum. We tend to think of documentaries as “exposing” truths or fighting for or against something, so the initial thought — especially from those with a liberal mindset — is “Jesus Camp” is intended to do just that. But consider the other side and the film could just as easily offer tangible proof for the powerful impact of evangelist teachings.
The subject of the film is primarily a children’s pentecostal minister in Missouri named Becky Fischer who runs a summer camp retreat for families in North Dakota with an emphasis on Christian faith and values. We meet a few of the children and parents who will be in attendance and interestingly enough, this camp is mere reinforcement for these people. They already seem to have strong Christian conviction, even at age five for some of them, so this is not a film about converting those of little faith.
Ewing and Grady put subtitled facts on the screen, but other than editing, that’s all the say they want in the documentary. We simply observe as these impassioned adults preach and these children — often times reduced to tears — become transformed to a degree most will never have seen before. Fischer draws a parallel to how Muslim children are trained at a young age to believe certain things about Islam (and how to use weapons, but that’s another matter) and she wants to do the same thing but with Christianity and “good” principles. This idea will terrify those who defend separation of church and state and make perfect sense to those who believe they must be intertwined to make the world a place free of sin.
“Jesus Camp” poses the ultimate question about the capacity of children and how we teach them. These kids believe their generation has a greater responsibility than any before it to bring the light of God and Jesus into this nation and the world. The words of ministers such as Fischer strike them deep within, in some ways (in my opinion) terrifying them to the point of wanting to make a difference. Is this a paragon for forming outstanding moral behavior or is it taking advantage of children who know nothing else? Ewing and Grady merely want us to be aware of how many children receive this message in our country because of how large the Evangelist movement is. Regardless of whether its good or bad, Americans need to understand this perspective because it constitutes a significant portion of the country’s religious/cultural landscape and one that has a fierce influence on the political sector.
Jesus Camp (2006)
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady