Judge Brett Cullum says there's no flutes at Jesus Camp.
America is being born again.
How do you differentiate faith from fear in a child? If that seems an uncomfortable question then wait until you see the subjects of the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp. The film follows Levi, Rachel, and Tory as they attend Pastor Becky Fischer's "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota. These aren't kids destined for archery, swimming, and canoes of the typical summer camp. No, they are in for several hours of scripture and prophesying every day. The experience is one you won't forget soon. The kids are preached to nonstop about very adult topics, and encouraged to break down as they wail and speak in tongues. They are thrown into a "spiritual war" where they must become soldiers and prophets as young as they can speak and walk. This is a look inside a fundamentalist church program affiliated with Charismatic Pentecostals. Whether you're a secular liberal or Evangelical Christian, Jesus Camp will provoke you and make you think about what religion and children mean.
From the first moment we see the kids of Jesus Camp they are in camouflage war paint dancing to a song about Zion with spears. The film immediately asks you to take a side to either support the idea of indoctrination or sit slack jawed as the kids are put through their paces. The documentary is the complete opposite of the Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) or Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) style, and hearkens back to what the genre is all about. The filmmakers are never seen, nor do they comment or editorialize on the subjects. Jesus Camp lets the people talk and go about their normal lives without any interference. The directors do choose to insert gray footage of America, and some unsettling music now and then, but those are the only two exceptions to their impartiality. To add a Christian counterpoint to the proceedings radio personality Mike Papantonio is shown criticizing the Religious Right for some of its political aspirations.
Jesus Camp is either a horror movie or a comforting lullaby depending on where you stand along the spiritual spectrum. Atheists and Agnostics will find it shocking, while fundamentalist southern Baptists may appreciate the revival atmosphere. It's scary how far they push the children, and hard to see them broken and crying as Pastor Becky tells them they are dirty, evil sinners. And yet a part of me has to admire the fervor and the strength of their faith. Don't worry that the subjects feel exploited by being on display. Pastor Becky Fischer said at screenings she was happy with the way she was portrayed, and thought it was an honest representation of her and the camp. This is a world where Harry Potter is forbidden, and protests on abortion clinics are expected by age five. The only subject to cry foul on the film was Ted Haggard, who asked Evangelical Christians not to see the feature.
The political climate makes Jesus Camp an important documentary for the George W. Bush era. Not that Bush is affiliated with the church, but one of his Evangelical advisors is featured in a cameo (the recently defiled Ted Haggard). The most intriguing scenes of Jesus Camp include the political agenda of the church which is very specific. President Bush is shown as a cardboard cutout, and the children are asked to pray and bless him as a group. He's treated as a savior in the culture war, and his decision on a Supreme Court Justice frames the movie and adds tension. Do religion and politics make great bedfellows, and can the two ever truly be separated?
It's a simple straight forward effective DVD presentation. The transfer is a super clean full screen treatment from a digital source, and looks fine for a documentary. There are some grainy sequences, but I didn't detect much digital noise throughout the feature. A simple stereo mix presents the dialogue clearly. Extras include a wealth of deleted scenes, and a very nice commentary featuring co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Ted Haggard sermon footage is highlighted on the box and menu of the DVD, but it only lasts a couple of minutes.
Jesus Camp resonates with the world of 2006-2007 because of the rising profile of Evangelical Christians as a voting force at the election polls. The film explores what it's like to be a young fundamentalist Christian at a church and camp designed for you. It's a well done documentary, and one of the best films of 2006 as well as an important one. Whether you walk away provoked or affirmed, it will have an impact on your view of the world. Even though the Religious Right can not be represented by a single faction of its many affiliations, Jesus Camp reveals a very tangible part of America that concerns the culture today. As the rift grows and the divides widen, the culture war for America escalates as quickly as the current Middle East struggles. Caught in the middle are the youth, who are sent to places like Jesus Camp to arm themselves for the coming struggle. The biggest concern is do they do it because they truly want to or are told to by their parents? Is it faith or fear?
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