I enjoy going to thrillers and horror films, looking for the next great ‘edge of your seat’ film experience. More often than not, I am left wanting, as the filmmakers resort to a series of cheap thrills trying to scare the audience with graphic, disgusting images, robbing their films of any impact. Well, I recently saw one of the scariest films I have ever seen. It not only left me on the edge of my seat, but is also filled with graphic, disgusting images and is all the more impactful because the film is a documentary about real people who run a camp for children. You horror devotees out there are probably saying to yourself “oooh sounds promising”. Then you better hurry out and rent the new documentary “Jesus Camp”, truly one of the scariest films I have seen in some time.
The documentary follows Pastor Becky Fischer, an Evangelical Christian Children’s Pastor, as she meets with a group of children at a church. She is there to meet with and talk with the kids, but she is also there to sell her summer camp, located at Devil’s Lake, South Dakota. Every summer, she and a small staff, welcome children from around the country, and their parents, for a summer camp devoted to training children to become the next wave of Evangelical warriors.
At this initial meeting, Pastor Becky meets three children who will end up coming to the summer camp; Levi, a young boy with a mullet, who believes so strongly in God and the message of his church, his wardrobe exists almost exclusively of t-shirts proclaiming his love of God, Rachael, a young woman, who loves to dance, but feels her body movements might lead to temptation and move her away from the church, even though she dances to Christian rock and Tory, the youngest of the group, doesn’t hesitate to approach strangers and ask them if they are Christians and give them pamphlets about the church and their message. These three children all attend Pastor Becky’s summer camp and we are invited along for the experience.
The beauty of “Jesus Camp” is that the directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, have been given access to a world most of us will never see. Pastor Becky lets them in and they film some of the meetings and seminars. They talk to each of the participants and we hear their own words. There are a few half-hearted attempts to show the ‘other side’ of the argument, but these aren’t really necessary.
The horror of the film isn’t a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ thing; it has nothing to do with that. The horror comes from watching these children soak up these messages like a sponge, frequently with their parents in attendance, and never learning the ‘other side’ of the argument, for comparison’s sake, if nothing else.
After we meet the three children, we follow one of them home and learn that she is being home schooled. Her mother doesn’t believe the school system promotes an ideology that they want their kids to learn. Her number one objection? There is no prayer in school. As the mother talks about the home schooling, we listen to her teaching her daughter about ‘Creationism’ and the lack of evidence supporting global warming. I didn’t realize global warming, as an idea, was something Evangelical Christians were against. Why? This doesn’t make any sense. Yet, they seem to believe this very strongly.
We meet Levi, whose parents will accompany him to camp and the family will take a road trip after the camp to Colorado and Washington, DC, bringing Tory along for the ride. Levi wears bright colorful t-shirts, as any kid his age would. Yet, his bright orange t-shirt with the Reese’s peanut butter cup symbol is filled with the word ‘Jesus’. All of his t-shirts are like this. Levi is being groomed to be the next Ted Haggart (who appears in the documentary, more on that later) and I have no doubt he will one day end up with a television ministry. His beliefs and conviction are so strong, we just know he will one day take a wrong turn and start preaching on television.
And the cameras roll as Pastor Becky talks about her mission. At one point, she explains how Muslim people train their children to be warriors, why shouldn’t Christians train their children to be warriors. During her visit to the church, she leads a prayer session and many of the children seem to become consumed with guilt and start crying, and shaking, and pleading for God’s forgiveness. For what? They are 9 and 10 years old. What could they have done that would require God’s forgiveness?
At the camp, Pastor Becky promises a fun time for all and shows us some of the props she uses to illustrate the various messages she portrays. At one point, she picks up a Ken doll and a Barbie, both of which are covered in leaves. You can probably guess the message. She goes on to show us more of the props she has accumulated and explains how she will use them. This is both frightening and numbing. Some of the messages she wants to present, and the props she wants to use are truly perplexing. Others are simplistic.
She also has guest speakers. At one point, a man addresses the group and shows them a collection of small baby doll fetuses, in various sizes. He is there to talk about how all children, no matter the size, or the age, are God’s children and God has a plan for them all. He then goes on to place a piece of duck tape with the word “LIFE” written on the front, over many of the people’s mouths. This discussion is also pretty graphic. Again, the audience is 9 and 10 year olds, and he tells them about leading protests at birth control clinics, what happens during an abortion, etc.
This session is followed by a group activity where the children smash mugs with the word ‘Government’ printed on them and they bless a cardboard cut out of President George W. Bush.
These scenes are riveting, interesting and scary.
“Jesus Camp” is not a perfect documentary. There are moments when the filmmakers simply film long stretches of highway, filled with fast food and chain restaurants, presumably in Pastor Becky’s car. The idea is to draw parallels between the proliferation of strip malls, chain stores and the spreading of the type of large churches featured in the documentary. The parallel is made the first time they do this, yet they revisit this idea at least two more times. Perhaps they intended this as a sort of break between ideas or acts, but it doesn’t really work that way.
These moments also include radio commentary about the confirmation hearings for Associate Justice Alito as he was being considered for the Supreme Court.
There are also a couple of moments with Mike Papantino, a radio talk show host who seems to have a show discussing religion on Air America. Mike appears to be a knowledgeable man and also seems to be amazed when members of the religious right call in. These moments are meant to be a sort of counterpoint to the Pastor Becky scenes and we see there can be a more moderate view of religion and how it fits into modern life. But these scenes are nowhere near as powerful as the scenes of the kids at camp. This is okay, because we really don’t need them. The scenes of Pastor Becky and the children talking more than adequately convey the danger of teaching the children these messages. If the counterpoint isn’t going to be as strong, they shouldn’t be included. They may end up diluting the central message.
Towards the end of the film, Mike Papantino gets a call from Pastor Becky and is able to pepper her with some hard questions. During the talk, she states that they don’t talk about government at her camp, and this is moments after we have watched her children break mugs with the word ‘government’ on them and then pray to the cardboard cutout of President Bush. Did she not remember these moments at her camp? Did she forget the cameras were rolling?
Remember Levi? At camp, he is asked to preach to the group and spends an afternoon ruminating about the message he wants to present, what he wants to say, etc. Levi’s parents attend the camp, along with his younger brother, and they make a regular family vacation out of it. After camp, they travel to Boulder, Colorado and visit Reverand Ted Haggart’s extremely large church. The boys are mesmerized as Taggart leads his large sermon and we watch the director putting together the televised broadcast. This was clearly shot before Haggart was outed and confessed to having sex with male prostitutes. Now, he is apparently fighting with the film’s producers and Distribution Company over his portrayal.
Then the family travels to Washington, DC where they continue the protest over abortion, meeting at the Supreme Court and once again covering their mouths with tape and the word ‘LIFE”.
These scenes are interesting, but they don’t really fit with the overall theme of the rest of the documentary. The film is called “Jesus Camp”, not “Jesus Summer Vacation”. I would have preferred more exposure to the activities at the camp, even though what I did see made me ill to my stomach.
Overall, “Jesus Camp” is a very effective, very interesting documentary I won’t soon forget. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, but didn’t win, it was up against “An Inconvenient Truth”.
“Jesus Camp” is a necessary viewing experience.