The documentary feature Jesus Camp generated a lot of buzz in some festival circles last year and won the top prize at SILVERDOCS: AFI-Discovery Channel Documentary Festival 2006 (one of the most highly regarded documentary festivals in the world). It was an auspicious launch for an unpretentious film, which went on to land an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. An Inconvenient Truth, another of the most important films of 2006, actually won the Oscar this year, but Jesus Camp deserves the critical praise lavished on it and, hopefully, a wider audience will follow now that it is available on DVD.
Generally speaking, this is a film about kids and the evangelical movement. Filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing document youth minister Becky Fisher and some of the children who follow her to the “Kids on Fire” summer camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. The film is framed with footage of a Christian radio host, who takes a more progressive stance than Fisher, and with commentary surrounding the confirmation process for Justice Alito.
Those particular narrative elements do two things quite effectively: the first contextualizes Becky Fisher’s discourse as one ideological thread by contrasting her with the radio host (since both have Christian perspectives, this suggests the breadth of ideologies that might all be called Christian); and, the second element, a backdrop to everything else going on, is the confirmation of Alito, which effectively demonstrates the power the religious right has come to exert on the political process in the United States.
These narrative elements provide a backdrop, but the focus is really on the children. Becky Fisher is committed to creating “warriors for God,” and what I see as the indoctrination of these children unfolds with frightening power in the film without much mediation on the part of the filmmakers. Grady and Ewing have woven the story together effectively and with a minimum of intrusion—there’s no narration, for example—and basically what we see is Becky Fisher’s ministry, the children’s responses to her message, a bit of footage of some of the children at home, and what now becomes a very interesting side trip.
One of the children featured in the film seems to be called to preach, and after camp the filmmakers follow him and his family on a trip to see Ted Haggard in what used to be his home church, the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Naturally, the footage of Haggard preaching and later talking with the boy was shot before the scandal that led to his resignation unfolded, and the effect of watching him then and knowing what we know now is disconcerting.
Because the mediations of the filmmakers are limited primarily to what they shot, what they cut, and how they chose to juxtapose and interweave the footage, it is likely this will be—even more so than most films—a text that varies dramatically in interpretation and resonance according to the viewer’s personal perspective and experience. For evangelical viewers, Becky Fisher may seem a devoted and highly effective youth minister. For progressive Christians (who feel affirmed reading Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong), hers may seem a cautionary tale about what happens when the compassionate acceptance and call to social justice of Jesus is discarded or overlooked by religious fundamentalists. For non-Christians, this may be a frightening story about what has gone horribly wrong in America as right-wing, religious zealots have exerted undue influence on the political process.
Because the filmmakers have wisely let the subjects of the documentary tell their own stories with limited mediation, it is left to the viewer to make connections and assessments about the value of the ideologies promoted by Fisher and others. Regardless of a viewer’s personal theological and/or ideological perspective, Jesus Camp is powerful and is an important document that presents a carefully crafted perspective on the role the evangelical movement has come to play in party politics. Surely that’s a subject that affects all of us.
Running time: 87 minutes.
Rating: PG-13, for discussions of some disturbing subject matter.