Thursday, December 11, 2008

Jesus Camp

I've never been a fan of horror films. Apart from the general lack of production values, taut writing and decent acting, I feel manipulated into shocking moments rather than horrifying ones. Basically, something jumps out at me to make me have an asthma attack rather than really cutting into my basest nightmares. Instead, I often turn to documentaries. The cold sting of reality will forever unsettle me more than any beast or monster, and many docs can wind up horrifying with even the most genial of setups. Such a film is Jesus Camp, a look into a Christian retreat that becomes a terrifying look into religious fundamentalism.

The camp is question is called the Kids on Fire School of Ministry, a name that immediately invokes images of suicide bombers, not love. It is run by Becky Fischer, a firebrand who speaks in tongues and seems to inspire love of the Lord through fearful talk of damnation. She so thoroughly cows the children that when she damns the fat and lazy of America, no one points out her own girth.

We follow the lives of three of the children in attendance: Levi, Rachael, and Tory. Levi is homeschooled and has actually preached several sermons at his father's church. We meet him as his mother teaches him that Creationism is the "only explanation that has all the answers" and that global warming is a hoax, though what people have to gain from the lie she never explains. Rachael, the daughter of a pastor, is first shown handing out pamphlets to patrons at a bowling alley. Tory listens to Christian heavy metal and deplores the sinful popular muic of the day.

It's too easy to say that these children have been brainwashed, but Fischer leaves us little choice; she remarks that Muslim fundamentalists so thoroughly indoctrinate their own children that they are willing to give their lives and says that Christians must do the same thing. When the camp counselors speak of these kids as soldiers for Christ, you can't help but wonder how literal they're being. More than once, she reduces the campers to tears with promises of hellfire if they do not give themselves fully to Christ.

As I watched Jesus Camp, I felt more and more repulsed by what I was seeing. The counselors take the message of Christ's love and pervert it; they speak of abortion to children who cannot be older than 10 years old. They bring out a cardboard cut-out of George Bush and instruct the children to pray that he surrounds himself with faithful staffers. Their "hook 'em when they're young" outlook sends chills down the spine. (Now ex-)Evangelical leader Ted Haggard preaches in a megachurch, then sits down aftewards and gleefully tells the filmmakers that, if all the Evangelicals vote, they can decide any election. In his own mind, he's the most important man in America. But quite humble I'm sure.

Sadly, the film is not perfect. At only 84 minutes, Jesus Camp never really delves into its subject; I feel more like I've just watched a highlights reel rather than an actual documentary. Because of its length, it never provides us with a real opposing view. Oh, we get one alright, but it's in the form of a radio host who proclaims his own Christianity and decries the practices of the Evangelicals. Such scenes are essential but, as we never get any more dissent, they feel ancillary and tacked on. If they really wanted to be objective, the filmmakers would have shown other, kinder churches. Many documentaries pick a very specific subject and stick to it, but Jesus Camp would have greatly benefited from being less myopic.

How then do I rate the film? It's trying so hard not to judge these warped tykes or the adults who control them that I can't say I learned much. However, I would be lying if I said this didn't stick with me, if it didn't shine a light into a shameful practice. In the film, Fischer chipperly states that George Bush provided them with a platform to legitimacy, that he ushered in a Golden Age for them. I cannot help but think that, with the first black man and a staunch liberal about to enter office, the horrors of Jesus Camp will seem like (excuse me for a moment) child's play.

Note: After watching it, I couldn't help but be somewhat warmed that Evangelical leader Ted Haggard has since been humiliated and that the camp closed because of this film. Sometimes it takes so little.

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