HEIDI EWING AND RACHEL GRADY’S JESUS CAMP.
Early on in Jesus Camp, Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer asks an auditorium full of children and parents: “Do you believe God can do anything?” A young mother grabs her child’s arm and raises it.
This is just one of many provocative moments that give Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s latest documentary its haunting power. As enthralling as the religious rallies it reveals, Jesus Camp is also never far from implications of a more incendiary nature. Freedom of religion guarantees parents’ rights to pass their beliefs on to their children, but at what point does religious training, laced with a political agenda, cross a line and become transgressive indoctrination? As Christian radio host Mike Papantonio, the voice of dissent in the film, says, “God has a special place for those that mess with our children.”
The film follows born-again Evangelical children to a boot-camp-style summer retreat in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, where the first thing Pastor Becky does is pray over the microphone that she’ll need to deliver her “Kids on Fire” message. She suspects the devil is in the room, ready to cut the power. The filmmakers were given unprecedented access to moments like this. “We were looking for a good story about children and faith, where it comes from and how kids worship.” says Grady. “We found Becky. She told us it was prophesized that someone from the secular world would come make a film about her children’s ministry. And she loved Devon, the young preacher in Boys of Baraka.”
Jesus Camp focuses on three children: Levi, a charismatic aspiring preacher with a mullet haircut; Rachael, a convincing salesgirl for the Lord; and Tory, who loves heavy metal Christian rock but worries about her desire to “dance for the flesh.”
Eamonn Bowles of Magnolia Pictures, who is distributing the doc, has called Jesus Camp “a Rorschach test for how you feel about religion right now.” As Becky Fischer points out in the film, “Our enemies are arming their kids with hand grenades and bomb belts.” Marjoe, the 1972 documentary about a child evangelist, who, as an adult, admitted he was a fake, seems quaint in comparison to Jesus Camp. All he was after was money.
Beautifully shot and edited, at times unintentionally funny, Jesus Camp is ultimately as chilling as a horror film. One mom points out, “There are only two kinds of people in the world. Those that love Jesus, and those that don’t.” Or, as one child puts it, “Whenever I am around non-Christians it makes my spirit feel yucky.”
Ewing and Grady talked to Filmmaker about the process of finding their documentary’s narrative, the timeliness of such a film, and a surprising approach to marketing. The film is currently out in limited release.
JESUS CAMP DIRECTORS HEIDI EWING AND RACHEL GRADY.
You were lucky to find such a generous guide into this world, with Becky Fischer. Heidi Ewing: She’s a classic, quintessential, fantastic documentary film character. It’s people who are living in the margins on extreme missions, but still sort of touch you and make you think about your own life, who are the best characters.
Were you a bit undercover, in that you had to hold your own beliefs close to the vest? Rachel Grady: What’s interesting is that we didn’t keep our beliefs covert — they just never asked, which I believe is quite telling. But the bottom line is that we’re asking someone if we can go into their home, experience their lives. Really, who are we to judge them? Ewing: And it’s not that we tried to be neutral or wimpy or avoid controversy. But you have to assume that people who see documentaries are intelligent. In the beginning the audience might be trying to figure out how we, the directors, feel, but by Act III they are engaged by whatever thought process this movie has taken them on. Grady: And after showing the film to the adult subjects in the movie, it made them realize that the language they are using might be perceived as very aggressive, very political. They don’t see what they are doing as political. They’ve been in such a bubble that it didn’t even occur to them that by using the [rhetorical] framing [device] of the army and the military, people would take that literally. For me that’s the best-case scenario for any film, if it makes people question what they thought they knew.
I saw an early cut of the film without Mike, the Christian talk show host, so I can see that he was needed to help your narrative. But I’ve heard some viewers say they didn’t think you needed him. Grady: Without Mike we discovered that despite the fact that we had exciting scenes of religious revival that were dynamic to watch the film lacked conflict. The characters had no doubt, no inner conflict. That’s part of what being a born-again Christian is: there is a lack of uncertainty and the world is painted in black and white, which is unnerving to more secular people. So the film lacked conflict. Any story with no dissent, no conflict, winds up being flat. Ewing: Also, one of our mission statements was, “What is the larger story we’re trying to tell?” Mike was able to voice an opinion of a large sector of Christians who don’t like the politicization of religion. We didn’t want to put all these [title] cards up explaining the entire backstory to this [culture]. We looked for a person who had those opinions and who could articulate them clearly. Mike was able to make connections from our kids and draw the lines to the larger movement as a whole. It was a device that was, admittedly, “inorganic” to the rest of the film, but it was an exciting challenge to weave his voice in — it was almost like directing a narrative.
Do you think Mike’s presence will keep [religious audiences] from showing the film in their churches? Grady: Absolutely not. Ewing: I’m not sure. But I don’t think so. Grady: Hopefully he’ll be somewhat of a provocateur to the Christian right. I think it works as a call-to-arms for them, to remind them that there are non-believers out there.
The film continually shows innocent children’s toys, kids on swings, but also an ominous use of toys, with the religious comics, Christian combat videos and fetus dolls. Grady: With the toys and swings, we wanted to remind everyone that these are kids, that these are indeed childhoods. But the way they hand out the little pink fetus dolls, it’s genius. It’s very effective. Kids are obsessed with their mothers. “This momma didn’t want her baby!”
What about the charge that this training borders on child abuse, especially since these kids are home-schooled and don’t have access to other points of view? Ewing: Two types of parents home-school: far-right conservatives and the far left, the hippies. Anyone in an extreme situation wants to remove his or her children from the mainstream. That is their right. But you can’t shelter somebody forever. Eventually they’re going to interact with the outside world, and the parents’ hope is that their children will stay strong and be for God.
The kids cry a lot at the rallies. Were they crying from joy or fear? Ewing: The crying is, to me, still a slight bit of mystery. Some kids are faking, some are just emotional, some are afraid, some say they feel the presence of God. It was very alarming to see, the first four, five, six times. But you do get desensitized to it, and these kids are clean and well fed and loved by their parents. Maybe it’s like the Stockholm syndrome, but I’m not sure I would call this child abuse.
When one of the mothers says something ridiculous, you cut to a dog looking up startled, almost like an eyebrow raised. I thought, Is that Heidi and Rachel’s POV? Grady: [laughs] You’re right. Ewing: We have to be honest. You are right. It’s not like the dogs are the director’s voice necessarily, but we do have two scenes where we cut to dogs. Grady: The dogs look into the camera like, “Huh? I just live here.”
What about God’s POV? I thought that’s why you put the shots of wind in trees and grass waving. Ewing: And the light coming through the window. We tried not to be cheesy and kitsch, yet there are certain iconic shots that are a shorthand language we had developed, like nature and wind. We tried not to overdo it. We got those iconic shots: the highways, very bland, flat, and the day was overcast. We had sunny shots; we didn’t choose them. The palette of the film is in the grays and the blues. It’s the everydayness of being Evangelical. Grady: Also, it gets to be such a fever pitch that you need these shots as palate cleansers — brain or emotion cleansers.
You also have roadside America shots that show ordinary life but feel a bit ominous. Grady: We wanted to weave throughout the narrative a reminder that while you’re traveling through this America, the religious billboard [on the side of the road] really means something, that there is stuff happening in that church that maybe didn’t occur to you.
What about the comparisons of the political side of the Jesus Camp training to the extremist Islamic madrassas? Is that a fair comparison? Grady: It’s fair in the way that you can make a comparison of all fundamentalist religions worldwide. They have something in common: blind faith. Ewing: I understand why it’s done, and I initially said something similar. But comparing the kids in Jesus Camp to the kids in madrassas is a little overstated, just like it irritates me when people bring up Hitler Youth. The difference is that Evangelicals do not need to strap on guns and bombs. We have something called a democracy, and these children are learning how to utilize the offerings of this democracy to get what they want. That’s what the movement’s doing. They’re not doing anything illegal. [They’re] flooding the FCC switchboards when they don’t like a television program, or flooding offices of congressmen when a vote’s coming up. Their leadership keeps abreast of every single hot-button issue, and that’s legal. These guys aren’t going to kill anybody, ever.
Maybe this comparison is prompted by the scene at the beginning of the film with the sticks, the war paint, the martial arts, the “Army of God” talk. Ewing: The Pentecostals told us they always use warlike language because it’s a war of the spirit and the kids like to get dressed up. Grady: The little girl at the end of the movie says, “We’re being trained to be spiritual warriors.” We left that in. We wanted people, if they were looking for it, to understand the context. Ewing: But there’s a splintering in the community now, big time. Even Ted Haggard’s church is saying, “We have to stop saying that global warming is not a problem.” The New York Times Magazine did a cover story about a preacher from a mega-church that refuses to talk about politics, will not endorse candidates from the pulpit, won’t use flags. There’s a lot of infighting right now, which is why this movie is so timely.
You’re pretty invisible in the movie. Until you get to that mega-church and Haggard started questioning you. It’s the first resistance you receive in the film. Ewing: Ted Haggard is a major leader of the political side of the Evangelical movement. We were not out for power players; we were out for foot soldiers. And then Haggard shows up and reminds us that there’s a greater agenda, that they’re on a mission. He says, “If we all vote, we’re going to sway every election.”
So Eamonn Bowles is planning on taking this out to churches? Ewing: Eamonn wants to bring the film to Christian strongholds before it hits L.A. or New York. Colorado Springs, Kansas City — they get the movie first. Magnolia is withholding the film from the secular world for one or two weeks. The Evangelicals have time to embrace or reject the film on their own terms. New York’s not going to be mad that Springfield had it first, whereas it might matter to the Christians if they don’t see it first. If New York and L.A. have gotten the movie and are criticizing the Evangelicals, that’s going to put them on the defense, and they’re not going to go see the film.
And Magnolia’s hiring a second PR firm for the Christians? Grady: Exactly. They hired a secular publicist and a Christian publicist, a company that did Billy Graham’s entire career as well as The Passion of the Christ. And Rick Warren, who’s mainstream, one of the most popular mega-church pastors, and Rob Parsley, who’s a very politicized Pentecostal pastor. So we have to wait and see. It’s in the realm of the possible that everyone will claim the film as his or her own. And we created the film in the hopes that could happen.
PRODUCTION FORMAT: Super 16mm.
CAMERA: (2) Aaton XTR.
FILM/TAPE STOCK: Kodak 7212 (100asa.) 7218 (500asa.).
EDITING SYSTEM: Avid Meridian.
COLOR CORRECTION: Technicolor NY, Discreet Lustre 2k.
MARJOE: Directed by Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith, this documentary follows child evangelist Marjoe Gortner as an adult and reveals the charlatanism of his time on the revivalist circuit.
HELL HOUSE: George Ratliff’s 2001 doc follows Trinity Church (Assemblies of God) as it does its yearly “evangelical haunted house,” where young Christians are shown how “sinners” are taken to hell.
THE EDUCATION OF SHELBY KNOX: Directed by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, this doc follows a 15-year-old conservative Southern Baptist girl in Texas as she transforms into a liberal Christian and feminist.