The best horror film I've seen all year is a documentary. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka), Jesus Camp is about kids. They play. They talk. They love to sing and dance. And their parents want them to follow in the footsteps of the Lord. Nine-year old Rachael throws a bowling ball on an outing with her family and friends; then she crosses a few lanes and offers a Chick comic and some thoughts about God's love to an older woman at the alley. Ten-year-old Tori practices her leg-sweep dance moves to her favorite music, "Christian Heavy Metal Rock and Roll." Twelve-year-old Levi has rocker-kid hair and explains how "At 5, I got saved, because I just wanted more of life because there's just nothing that I thought was fun, that I thought was satisfying. ..."
There's no narration over Jesus Camp -- just the voices of Rachael and Levi and Tori, or people like Pentecostal children's minister Becky Fischer, or syndicated Christian talk radio host Mike Papantonio or Tori's mom, who says "Our kids are on loan to us from God, and someday we're going to have to answer to God about how we raised our children."
Jesus Camp focuses on a summer program run under Fischer's instruction, which operates out of Devil's Lake, North Dakota. We get to watch Fischer pray over her technical equipment -- "No microphone problems, in Jesus' name. ..." before briefly speaking in tongues. The film follows Rachael and Tori and Levi and their families, their dinner conversation and home-schooling and play times; the filmmakers follow closely, smoothly, invisibly. At the same time, the interviewed subjects often face the camera calmly, directly and talk about what's behind their choices, their worship, their perception of Christ. (The only person to deliberately address the camera and make meta-commentary about the fact he's being filmed is Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, who grabs the camera and jokes: "I think I know what you did last night! If you send me a thousand dollars I won't tell your wife!" He -- and the crowd -- laugh, and then he gives the kicker: "If you use any of this, I'll sue you." He's kidding, but it doesn't feel funny.)
One of the more interesting elements of Jesus Camp comes in the person of Mike Papantonio, a syndicated talk radio host whose concern about child Evangelical education demonstrates that American Christianity is not, in fact, a monobloc. Papantonio decries some of the trends of worship seen in Jesus Camp: "There's this entanglement of Politics with religion -- what kind of lesson is that for our children?" At the same time, Becky Fischer asks her charges "Do you know Muslims train their children from the time they're five years old to fast during the month of Ramadan?" It's hard to tell from her tone if she's contemptuous or envious of that fact, that faith, that discipline.
I can't imagine what the shooting ratio was like for Jesus Camp -- the ratio expressing the differential between the amount of footage shot and the film's 85-minute running time. It may have been a matter of Ewing and Evans being very lucky and catching great stuff from passionate people; it may have been a matter of presence and patience and trust so that the subjects felt less like subjects.
But however they got them, those moments are in the movie -- everything from Levi preparing for his first time preaching to his fellow camp residents and his jazzy, boyish excitement. Then we watch one of the camp's guest speakers exhorting the kids to smash a ceramic coffee cup to symbolize how they will ' ... break the power of the enemy over the government ... break the power of the devil in this government."
And there's silence in Jesus Camp as well, and beauty. It may seem like a bit of an inverted piece of praise to say that Jesus Camp is as well-made as it is important, but in this DV-doc age, passion for a subject hasn't always equaled proficient film making. It's an unforced film, a graceful one, and one that gradually, incrementally becomes more and more frightening. Levi talks about how "America is supposed to be God's nation, right? But things got all ... twisted around." A group of kids points at a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush and shouts, as instructed, "Mr. President: One nation under God!" A guest speaker to the camp shows kids a group of fetus models and quotes Dr. Seuss: "A person's a person ... No matter how small. ..."
There's the question to be raised of if Jesus Camp approves of the kids and their teachers. I went to a religious-themed camp when I was younger, too -- one named for St. Jean De Brebeuf, where we learned about the agonies of Christ and made s'mores -- but I don't recall, for example, being led in a pledge to be part of the generation that would overturn Roe Vs. Wade like Levi, Rachael and Tori are. Ewing and Evans frame the film against the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and the nomination and confirmation of Samuel Alito, and the link between the pulpit and politics is made explicit. Haggard explains why he believes the children are the future: it's all about the growth of the Evangelical Christian church: "It's got enough growth to essentially sway every election. If the Evangelicals vote, they determine the election. ... It's a fabulous life!"
And Rachael thinks it's exciting: "I feel like we're kind of being trained to be warriors, but in a much funner way ... there's an excitement, yet peace at the same time; it's really cool." Early in Jesus Camp, Fischer asks a room full of kids "Is there anyone here who believes that God can do anything?" One woman pulls up the hand of the infant sitting in her lap and then reaches other to thrust her other child's hand in the air. I saw Jesus Camp the same week as 49Up -- the most recent installment of the British documentary series that's filmed a group of Britons at ages 7, 14 and so on, checking in every seven years to watch how they, and their world, have changed. It made me wonder what Levi, Tori and Rachael will be like -- and what their world will be like -- seven, fourteen, twenty-one years from now. Jesus Camp struck me immediately, has stuck with me, is making me question almost everything I think I know about faith and God and country; it's hard to imagine a more important -- or more human -- documentary being released this year.
(For more on Jesus Camp, check out Cinematical Editor Emeritus Karina Longworth's video interview with Ewing and Grady.)