The documentary "Jesus Camp" focuses on a group of children being trained in radical evangelical prayer. The film debuted in theaters earlier this fall and will be shown on A&E sometime next year, but the controversy surrounding it began well before its release and could continue in classrooms and living rooms long after it is out of the limelight. Many—on both the left and the right—have called the film a salvo in the culture war because it emphasizes the practices of a fundamentalist Christian sect, but directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady say they only hoped to make a document about young evangelicals in America.
The film, which spotlights a children's camp run by a Pentecostal minister named Becky Fischer, suggests that the camp is connected to the broader evangelical movement: along with a close-up view of the radical ministry at Fischer's camp, the film visits the home church of Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and recounts evangelical support for the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
Beliefnet's Patton Dodd (full disclosure: Dodd previously worked at Rev. Haggard's New Life Church) recently discussed "Jesus Camp" and its controversy with filmmaker Rachel Grady.
What did you know about evangelical Christians before you began shooting "Jesus Camp"?
The most intimate relationships that I had with born-again Christians were primarily inner city African-American evangelicals. I made a film called "The Boys of Baraka," and one of the kids [in the film], Devon, is an aspiring pastor. I spent a lot of time at his church. And I had a very favorable impression because I noticed that, wherever there were churches in downtrodden areas of the inner city, the community and the neighborhood around it were much more vital and were much more attractive aesthetically. There seemed to be an infusion of hope whereas, in other parts of the city, there was heart-crushing hopelessness.
That was one reason we wanted to explore [evangelicalism] to begin with—we saw what a profound effect it had on Devon.
So the positive influence of evangelicalism on Devon was what inspired "Jesus Camp"?
The germ of the idea came from spending time in Devon's community and seeing how evangelicalism affected this individual. We thought that exploring this territory through a child was the best way to go. So, we were looking for a story that focused on kids and faith: a school or a ministry or a camp that had children at its core.
How did Becky Fischer and her fundamentalist camp come into the picture?
There were a couple of evangelical organizations down in the South that we were exploring, and one of the children's pastors suggested Becky Fischer. We went online and we explored her ministry, and thought it looked absolutely amazing. On her website, she describes how she goes about training children to be engaged in the supernatural and training children in the gifts of prophecy and healing. We thought it was fascinating.
When we met her, we thought she was a wonderful documentary film subject, and that was our leaping-off point.
You've ended up with a film that is really about politicized Christianity. Is that something that you chose to do after discovering Becky Fischer?
The political story really didn't start bubbling until we were into a couple of weeks of shooting. It was not something we were looking for, but when we were at these conferences and when we were at the camp, and after speaking with Becky, we felt like there was an exploration of the culture war to be had.
It wasn't necessarily about politics at that point, either. When we started observing some of the things that the adults were teaching the children, Heidi and I interpreted, of course through our secular lens, that the conversation about politics was much more active in these homes than we had seen with other kids their age.
Is that how you would describe yourself—as secular?
I was raised Jewish and I do go to temple on the High Holidays, but I don't go on a weekly basis. I definitely associate myself as a Jew ethnically as well as spiritually. But I don't go on a regular basis.
Some of the most interesting moments in the film come when you let Becky Fischer respond to the footage you've shot of the kids in her ministry—kids speaking in tongues and praying very emotionally. She's clearly very pleased with what she is seeing. How do you read those moments of the film?
It's been interesting to see that ["Jesus Camp"] holds a mirror up to every individual who sees the movie. Becky is thrilled by it. It's rewarding for her to see herself as changing these children's lives forever in an incredibly positive way. She's proud. I think she's a very caring person. She has a big heart, and if she thought she was doing something harmful, she would stop.
You mentioned that the film is like a mirror. In terms of its critical reception, it has seemed to mirror our cultural divide. Ted Haggard, who is featured in the film, and many reviewers in the evangelical press have criticized the film for being unfair and narrow. Then you have warm reviews from the mainstream and alternative presses, some of whom say the film is a clear presentation of evangelicalism. You've said you want the film to promote cross-cultural dialogue, but so far it seems like it reinforces what people already think.
It does. But what's been really interesting is how much negative press we're getting from the secular liberal outlets for totally polarized reasons. We've been getting a lot of it. And the range is the more liberal they are, the more venomous they are. They say that our bias is so obvious that we must think everyone's stupid, or they say that we have no point of view, we have no spine, and why didn't we do an exposé when we had the opportunity? And they're seeing the same movie.
That's just part of making a provocative film that makes people talk. To tell you the truth, my biggest concern isn't that people like it. My priority is that people see it and think about it. That's all.
At one point the character Rachel says, "I feel like we're being trained to be warriors, only in a much funner way." How do you read that line?
It reveals how childlike she is, even though she has embraced this ideology, she's still just a little girl. That's one of the reasons why the entire film is so provocative. If this film had been centered around adults, I don't think anyone would care. But it makes people think about faith in a very different way when it's coming from the mouth of a kid.
Most of the film is set in the fundamentalist children's camp in North Dakota, but near the end one of the campers, Levi, is shown attending a megachurch in Colorado Springs. What was the occasion for his going to Colorado Springs?
Well, it was one of several stops in the Midwest. The [movie’s] distributor had a strategy to open it up in more conservative Christian markets before it had a national release, to give it to the Christian audiences and see what they thought. Ted [Haggard] hadn't rejected the film yet, and it didn't occur to them that he was going to be so against the movie. They opened it up there so that the community could see it and discuss it amongst themselves before the more secular liberal press claimed it as their own.
We really didn't design or edit or make the movie with that in mind. We tried to make it as neutral as possible so that everybody could come to the table and have a conservation about the movie.
We were going to be shooting in different megachurches. We called a bunch of megachurches, and we had this concept that we were going to have a montage at the end of the film that showed a Sunday service that was maybe going on all over the country. And when we told the O'Brien's, Levi's family, that we were going to be filming there, they expressed interest in coming.
Arguably, Becky Fischer and Ted Haggard represent very different streams within Protestant Christianity—she's a fundamentalist and he's an evangelical, or at least they have very different approaches.
I do see them as different in a lot of ways, but the O'Briens and Becky and the other, adults in our movie definitely look to Pastor Ted as leadership. They do. And they look to James Dobson and several other important leaders. They follow what their advice is and very much feel part of the evangelical family. They identify as part of that family. I don't think it's fair or right to exclude them because they may do things a little bit different.
Sure. But in the context of the film, do you agree that the combination of the Jesus Camp, with its high-pitched scenes of radical and politicized Christianity, and the rest of evangelicalism creates a very forboding impression? Viewers are shocked by that—"This is what Christians in America are up to?"
I think it's ignorant for people to be fearful. Fearful of what? Fearful of a united community? Fearful of a community that is utilizing the democracy better than everybody else? That's a wasted emotion. They should use the opportunity to think about how civically engaged they are, how are they raising their kids.
The film also contains many references to the confirmation of Samuel Alito, Jr. to the Supreme Court. Again, in context, isn't that meant to feel forboding—that the Alito confirmation is the political extension of Becky Fischer's ministry?
The reason that we bookended the film with the Sandra Day O'Connor resignation and then the Alito confirmation was because it really informed our experience making the film. It happened in real time. As we started filming she resigned and, as we finished editing, Alito was confirmed. So, it seemed appropriate to bookend the film that way. It wasn't arbitrary. For us, it was very organic.
It's interesting to me that you don't see any of this as forboding. As you say, viewers are definitely responding to it as such. And the soundtrack in the film has very dark, deep tones, which seems to emphasize that this is scary material.
You know, the biggest criticism we've gotten is that our music seems to be creepy and forboding. Honestly, we did the best we could. That was exactly not what we wanted to happen. We did not want people to think that we thought it was a horror movie. We struggled and struggled with the music. We're trying to tell a story, but we're craftsmen, and we're trying to create an experience. Apparently we couldn't win on this one because that has been the single biggest criticism that we've gotten. We scored the movie from start to finish twice, [which is] never done in film. And you know what? I throw in the towel. I'm sorry, that was not our intention.