Jesus Camp (2006)
Picture this: a barn-sized room full of young American children shaking, gyrating, crumpling into tear-stained heaps on the floor, raising their hands to the ceiling, screaming, and pleading for mercy and power as a bunch of adults swirl through the convulsing masses, speaking in tongues, pointing and yelling. Mass torture? A sacrificial ceremony? A reaction to the
cancellation of The O.C.? No, it’s a meeting of a Christian Evangelical summer camp in North Dakota called “Kids on Fire.” OK, so maybe there is a bit of torture involved.
The 2006 Oscar-nominated documentary Jesus Camp, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (whose last film was the excellent The Boys of Baraka), exposes this “spiritual” summit as the sad, twisted sideshow that it is simply by observing with incredulous detachment the methodical brainwashing of these poor children, some of whom can barely speak, let alone understand the harangues of the heavy-set harridan seething in front of them. Ewing and Grady wisely keep their distance and let the events unfold as they happen — the sheer perverted power of these zealot’s delusions will leave you in a slaw-jacked stupor more powerful than what the cinematic acrobatics of a Fellini can produce.
Rarely does a film bounce me around so much between humor and sadness, but when the hell-fire-and-brimstone sermons of Pentecostal preacher and camp leader Becky Fisher aren’t uproarious, they’re downright sad. “Devil,” she prays over a Power Point projector, “We know what you like to do in meetings like this…you will not prevent this message from going out.” On other religions: “We have the truth!” On prepubescent youths who admit to sometimes thinking bad thoughts: “We can’t have phonies in the army of God!” On Harry Potter: “Warlocks are enemies of God! And had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death!”
Forget Dali’s melting clocks and Buñuel’s punctured eyeballs, is there anything more surreal than a throng of children talking to a cardboard cutout of President Bush, touching him and praying for him? Or children waiting in line to have a red piece of tape with the word “life” written on it placed over their mouths? Oh yeah, maybe a bright-eyed, freckled little girl walking up to a stranger at a bowling alley to explain that God told her they needed saving.
The film is on shakier ground when it tackles politics, especially when it links this (largely Pentecostal) pontificating to Islamic states that encourage martyrdom via suicide bombings. And the inclusion of an Air America talk show host as a de facto mouthpiece for the filmmakers is pointless — we don’t need to hear from some pundit what we already know.
Still, Jesus Camp is simultaneoulsy frightening, funny and sad. It exposes the underbelly of a particular segment of American society which rarely sees the light of day, precisely because it resembles some sort of cult. And above all, it reminds us that politics holds the hand of religion, right alongside Islamo-fascism is Christian-fascism, and right at the side of God is, well, no one.