There have been a lot of horror movies released in recent weeks, but the scariest film of the season by far is this documentary about an evangelical camp for kids headed by Missouri preacher Becky Fischer. In an age when people justifiably fret over the indoctrination of Muslim children as warriors of jihad, it’s hardly less frightening to learn that some activists are dedicated to the proposition that the proper response is to do likewise on the “Christian” side (even if they emphasize that their warriors are intended to be entirely peaceful ones).
Of course, that’s just one perspective on the camp Fischer conducts at the ironically-named Devil’s Lake–the one that would doubtlessly be shared by Mike Papantonio, a mainstream Christian broadcaster whose expressions of concern about the politicizing of faith by conservative movements like Fischer’s are used to punctuate the narrative. (He and Fischer converse over the air at the end, but it’s clear neither is likely to convince the other.) The evangelicals who send their children to “Kids on Fire,” as the camp is called, undoubtedly see it differently, and would applaud the encouragement of–or pressure on, if you prefer–the youngsters to speak in tongues, to practice what look like war dances, to publicly confess their failings and ask forgiveness or to pray before a life-sized cutout of George Bush that the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito will succeed and bring an end to abortion rights.
The fact is that viewers of “Jesus Camp” will come out of the picture either applauding Fischer’s program or deploring it. (They’re also likely to respond very differently to a segment in which she proudly shows off the various visual tools she’s accumulated to use as teaching devices.) But the fact that it allows for such divergent reactions, even invites them, is an indication that directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (“The Boys From Baraka”) have sincerely tried to be even-handed in their approach.
And in addition to giving a real human dimension to the film by permitting both Fischer and Papantonio to express their very different personalities and positions, the film engages by focusing on three children in particular–twelve-year old Levi, an intense kid with long hair who’s already preaching and sees it as his destined profession; nine-year old Rachel, a supremely confident dark-haired girl with a strong missionary streak; and Tory, an ebullient nine-year old blonde who loves to dance–and letting us see as bit of their home lives as well as providing them with opportunities to address themselves directly to the camera. And while the focus remains on them, the footage catches revealing snippets of others as well–some of the parent who accompany their kids to the camp, but also of other children. A brief sequence of a young boy, embracing the invitation to testify publicly, confessing that sometimes he has the most fundamental doubts about Christianity, is a particularly poignant moment, given the almost shocked reaction that follows his admission. It’s a pity his story isn’t followed up at greater length. On the other hand, a scene in which Levi visits the megachurch presided over by televangelist Ted Haggard, who proclaims his political clout with the Bush administration while chiding the filmmakers to repent themselves, has a tone that might reflect the man’s persona but still comes across as intrusive.
At only 87 minutes, “Jesus Camp” is trim without becoming discursive. And it raises questions that are provocative and important without becoming stridently didactic or shallowly dismissive. It’s a fine, thought-provoking documentary made with skill and admirable honesty.