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The Independent Critic

STARRING
Becky Fischer & The Kids at Jesus Camp, Ted Haggard
CONCEIVED & DIRECTED BY
Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing
MPAA RATING
Rated PG-13
RUNNING TIME
87 Mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY
Magnolia
 "Jesus Camp" Review 
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I have seen several horror films this year...
There was "Hostel." It was an intensely graphic, frightening exploration of the seemingly limitless potential of humanity to enjoy the suffering of others.

There was "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning." While a rather pathetic retread, this film too explored took us back to the beginning of "Leatherface" and how the "Texas Chainsaw" saga began.

There was even the remake of "The Hills Have Eyes." While rather humdrum in its horror, "The Hills Have Eyes" featured an intensely gratuitous rape scene that will likely stay with you long after the film has ended.

There have been many other horror films this year.

I have seen no film as horrifying as "Jesus Camp," the second feature documentary from the film-making duo of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing ("The Boys of Baraka"). Given practically limitless access to the camp in question from Kids in Ministry International Founder Becky Fischer, Grady and Ewing have created a documentary that frightened me, disturbed me, enraged me and, perhaps most importantly, made me determined to vote in the next election.

"Jesus Camp" is a remarkably even keeled look at the Kids On Fire Summer Camp led by Fischer, a children's pastor, in Devils Lake, North Dakota. Grady and Ewing don't appear to have an agenda, and it is that lack of an agenda that provides "Jesus Camp" with its cinematic power.

The film-makers are not attacking evangelical Christianity, Fischer or the Kids on Fire Summer Camp. This IS the "Kids on Fire Summer Camp." Fischer and many evangelical Christian leaders have seen "Jesus Camp" and are happy with the result. This is how they believe, think, feel, preach, teach, indoctrinate and, ultimately, hope to raise up a powerful religious right to "save" America.

Truth be told, I fully expected to be sympathetic to "Jesus Camp." I am, after all, a Christian. I am a minister, and I am currently attending seminary. While I was aware this film documented what can only be seen as the extreme right, I expected to resonate with their spirituality, their desire to raise up children of God and the passion for Christ...it is a passion I very much possess myself.

It was at about the halfway point during "Jesus Camp" when I suddenly realized that I had already viewed nearly half of a full-length documentary about children and God without feeling, even for a single instant, that feeling I most associate with God...LOVE.

By the end of "Jesus Camp," I was acutely aware that this had not changed. I watched an entire documentary centered on the lives of children, and did not once experience love, warmth, sweetness, innocence or anything the vast majority of us would associate with children. Instead, I experienced what Fischer openly acknowledged as her goal with the "Kids On Fire Summer Camp"...the absolute indoctrination of our children with what is "right." Her justification? "Islam is doing the same thing," she proclaims, with nary a clue how completely horrifying that sounds coming from her mouth.

"Jesus Camp" starts off with a primary focus on the lives of three particular children.

Levi, a 12-year-old boy who was saved at the age of 5 and already plans to be a pastor. He openly admits having bad feelings when he's around the unsaved.

Then, there is Tory. Tory is a 10-year-old fan of Christian heavy metal music who acknowledges that sometimes her spiritual dancing turns into being of the flesh.

Finally, and perhaps most sadly, is Rachael. Rachael is a 9-year-old who feels "the spirit" so intensely within her that she finds herself randomly envangelizing strangers everywhere she goes.

These children are portrayed in their home lives, their church lives and, of course, during the camp itself. Again, the wonder of "Jesus Camp" is that it doesn't portray anyone in a bad light. It simply portrays them. There are some who will be speaking in tongues while watching "Jesus Camp," and there will be others calling the IRS wondering how a children's ministry with non-profit status can openly endorse political candidates and, in one particularly disturbing scene, practically turn the current President Bush into an idol of worship.

There are aspects of "Jesus Camp" that will, most definitely, ring true for most Christians. The "Kids on Fire Summer Camp" does teach, does preach, does offer kids the chance to experience ministry and does, at one point, even go awfully close to a warm fuzzy when one individual states that the reason evangelical Christianity is booming in America is because it teaches children that God loves them and that they are things of beauty. It may very well do that, but we sure don't see it during "Jesus Camp."

About 2/3 of the way through "Jesus Camp," the children's stories seems to go on the back burner as Grady and Ewing focus their attention more exclusively on Fischer. While Fischer is an intriguing figure, this diversion is disconcerting as it leaves the children's stories largely unresolved and even the camp itself seems to never have an "ending." Somehow, everyone ends up in Washington, D.C. from North Dakota doing a silent pro-life action. How this occurs is never explained, and "Jesus Camp" never returns to the camp or says goodbye to the children before turning its focus on Fischer.

"Jesus Camp" couldn't be truly even-keeled without presenting at least a taste of the more progressive side of Christianity. "Jesus Camp" repeatedly features Air America radio show host Mike Papantonio, a Methodist, whose nightly railings of the evangelical right are presented in sound bytes with the exception of a particularly powerful and pointed interview with Fischer herself.

As frightening as "Jesus Camp" is, it's impossible to deny that it is a powerful, well-developed and informative documentary based on a subject at the forefront of American society today. It is a film that will disturb and/or delight you dependent almost entirely upon your personal, religious and political views. The film-makers wisely have realized they do not need to manipulative the proceedings...they are what they are and that's powerful enough to make great cinema.

"Jesus Camp" does make great cinema, however, it is not a great cinematic achievement. Along with the inexplicable decision to divert from the children's stories to Fischer's story and the film's unclear ending, "Jesus Camp," at times, has a rather amateurish feel to its cinematography. While "Jesus Camp" was clearly done on a low budget, on several times shots were noticeably awkward, dark, grainy or simply faded in and out of focus. As the film was picked up by Magnolia Pictures, it seems unfathomable that these basic technical issues weren't addressed prior to releasing the film.

Regardless of your spiritual background or foundation, "Jesus Camp" is likely to evoke a response from you...fear, anger, horror, sadness, glee, praise, joy or uncertainty. Thanks to the sure and steady vision of directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, "Jesus Camp" is an impossible to ignore look at a political force that has changed American politics and, if they have their way, the future of America itself.
 
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic
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