Jesus Camp (2006, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady)

The directors of Jesus Camp have claimed that their film is impartial, not intended to cast a harsh light on the occupants and officers of the now-defunct Kids on Fire summer camp, an evangelical unit meant to fill kids with commitment to Christ and all such nonsense. I, meanwhile, do not come to Jesus Camp as an impartial observer, as my built-in opinion is that things like this are unrelentingly creepy. But the thing is that I came away thinking that my side of the argument came off worse — somehow – than the phony charisma and filthy corruption of the likes of camp leader Becky Fischer, a truly gross human being, and Ted Haggard, captured just before his downfall. In short, I don’t believe that the filmmakers approached the film with an even hand, nor do I believe that Jesus Camp is a fair film, nor do I believe it has any value beyond preaching smugly to the (un)converted, nor do I believe that the film’s exploitation of the children featured therein has any moral superiority to the also-disgusting exploitation of the children by their batshit crazy and defiantly hate-filled Evangelical parents, group leaders, authority figures, etc.

Few things are worse than a didactic documentary. I love documentaries but I strongly prefer cinema vérité, with the caveat that I accept there’s no such thing as a truly neutral documentary film, especially about a subject as volatile as this. You make a political statement ultimately just by turning on a film camera to capture something that’s happening, and certainly the location in which you place the camera is exponentially more of a manipulation, the way your footage is edited exponentially more beyond that. But one thing that is worse than a movie with an agenda is one that has one and pretends it doesn’t. Jesus Camp gives the lie to its own trumped-up myth of compassion through its ridiculous bumpers capturing Air America talk radio host Mike Papantonio spewing a bunch of self-righteous shit that says what most likely the majority of the audience for a movie like this is thinking. He even takes calls, which reiterate everything he is already saying, which gives some illustration to the echo-chamber nature of the movie itself. Because we know the majority of Jesus Camp‘s audience consists of well-to-do liberals, like yours truly, who come to laugh at the outlandish behavior of the Christos and their kids. There’s something deeply troubling about that. No, there isn’t narration, but for once in my life I must agree with Focus on the Family: the movie pushes a specific viewpoint.

All that said, Papantonio’s self-righteousness certainly isn’t offensive on a level with Fischer’s. She is so uncomfortable and tiresome to watch that it provides almost total distraction from the icky feeling of seeing the odd learned behavior of little kids who don’t know any better strewn all over the world for people to gawk and shake their heads at. The ideal version of Jesus Camp would’ve been one that presented a reality and lifestyle unfamiliar to its audience and both humanized and documented it rather than offering it up as an institution of fear, hate and evil. Those things all may be true, of course; I’d argue that they most definitely are, but that isn’t productive in signaling the true dangers of faith-based juggernauts and childhood indoctrination like that depicted herein. The Devil doesn’t have horns like Ted Haggard; he looks like you and me, and his weirdness hits you bit by little bit. And that is more dangerous than the compound of sinister and absurd things thrown at us by this movie.

Then again, you can spend all day accusing the film of deliberately making its subjects look ridiculous, but in fact those subjects do most of the work. I felt dirty watching kids moved to tears by sermons and participation, and it took me to a horrible place I would prefer not to spend much time in, but the total insanity of Fischer and her cohorts wandering around blessing computer equipment, praying that PowerPoint presentations don’t malfunction, reminded me immediately of Matt Taibbi’s remarkable reportage about a revival he went to at which the preacher howled about casting out the demons “of handwriting analysis.” And then there’s the ranting and raving about the then-reigning cultural institution of the moment, the Harry Potter films and novels, and the almost impossible to believe praying at a cardboard shrine of George W. Bush. (Yes, really.) Just as amusing but far more frightening is the footage of parents teaching their children not to believe anything that science has proven, as science is itself — oh, one of the most blood-boiling of all classic Christian lines – an act of “faith.” That horrendous hopeless feeling of wondering what on earth will come of children who have the wool pulled over them like this is something the footage could’ve accomplished easily with respect and distance, without all of the extraneousness and the bizarre impulse to undercut the private lives of people with far different beliefs and motives than our own. I don’t like a film of any sort, much less a documentary, that asks us to laugh at people different than I am, no matter how much I loathe their value system and fear for the world they wish to live in.

Indeed, I’ll go ahead and declare that the Kids on Fire School of Ministry was a broad act of child abuse, and if there’s something to applaud about Jesus Camp it’s that — in the classic vein of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line — it ended up making a difference. Kids on Fire was discontinued as a result of bad publicity stemming from the film, which both seems to give the lie to its supposed neutrality and has made it something of a quaint antique, as its filming immediately preceded the popular decline of the Bush administration and a rejection of Evangelical attitudes that began in earnest with backlash over a scandal that had Haggard himself at its center. It’s bone-chilling to see Haggard more than vaguely flirting with a young boy during the film; it’s hard to take pleasure in all of this sickness, much less feel objective fascination about it.

Which brings me to my other point: Jesus Camp, too, is an act of child abuse. Even its poster is, tears streaming down the face of a little girl too young to be aware of any of the implications or contexts of the image in which she’s unwittingly taking part. The kids in it are in their late teens now. Who knows where their lives have taken them? But I doubt that being caught on film during moments of what should have been private growth has been a boon to them, and I think the film is finally irresponsible, not necessarily just for zeroing in on how children respond to religious indoctrination but for placing them as artifacts with eccentricities for us to giggle at, not unlike the kids in the equally overrated and disturbing Spellbound. Maybe you think these kids are adorable, or maybe you think they’re terrifying; I think they’re just kids, even if what they symbolize is pretty scary to me and I wish that I thought their total ignorance of scientific reality and the broader world wouldn’t be the hindrance to them in the future that it likely will be. But the bottom line is I need empathy in my movies, and in this one all I saw was hatred — both coming from and directed toward the Evangelicals — and it was such a horribly distressing experience that it completely nauseated me. Which means, I suppose, that it had the intended effect.

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