Review: Jesus Camp
Not unlike their Evangelical Christian subjects, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary Jesus Camp is informed by very good intentions, but is unfortunately tripped up by a lack of self-awareness about its motivations.
In the film, Ewing and Grady set out to expose Pastor Becky Fischer's “Kids On Fire” summer camp in North Dakota as an egregious example of the Evangelical indoctrination of small children throughout the United States. They don't need to work very hard to make the connection of this practice to the deliberate preservation of a voting bloc in support of the right wing establishment, mainly because all of the adult figures in the film are extremely forthcoming about this matter. In fact, Fischer herself cites the Islamic methods of fundamentalist indoctrination to be a sort of inspiration. When she is not braying about the need to create a new generation of “Christian soldiers” or launching into tirades against the Harry Potter books that are two steps beyond what would likely qualify as parody were this a work of fiction, Fischer and the rest of the adults in the feature beam with an unquestioning adulation for George W. Bush that stops just short of the praise that they would normally reserve for Jesus Christ.
The trouble is, Ewing and Grady have made their rhetorical work far too easy for themselves by focusing exclusively on unhinged radicals such as Fischer rather than portray any sort of range of viewpoints from a religious movement that accounts for an enormous chunk of the American population. The film clearly seeks to spook its viewers with a nightmarish vision of Evangelicism that only serves to reinforce the worst “Blue State” expectations of its target audience, and their straw man tactics render valid criticism of their subjects facile and occasionally insulting. The directors put up a front of objectivity and attempt to disguise their editorializing with recurring, obviously staged scenes in which Air America talk show host Mike Papantonio rants in a radio studio about the frightening political implications of the rise of the Evangelicals and their quasi-fascist ambitions, but the resulting effect is like the passive-aggressive cousin of Ann Coulter's ham-fisted prose.
Ewing and Grady present the midwest (specifically Missouri) with the condescending eye of longtime Adbusters subscribers, and they only do slightly better in the representation of their core subjects, who mostly appear on screen to hang themselves with their own rhetorical rope before the editors move on to the next scene. In its most hypocritical moments, the film is highly judgmental of Evangelical propaganda, although Jesus Camp is propaganda itself in the way that it presents its “characters” (as they put it on the movie's official website) as a terrifying bunch of others. In the end, the film accidentally portrays its subjects with the very same elitism that alienates a large portion of the country and enables the anti-intellectualism that drives the Evangelical movement, and reveals the toxic smugness that informs both sides of the great political and cultural divide in the contemporary United States.