The most chilling horror movie of the year isn’t Hostel or The Descent: it’s Jesus Camp, the new documentary by Boys Of Baraka directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. The terror of watching kids spend every moment of their youth proselytizing, surrendering to prayer, and vying to “reclaim America for Christ,” is far more intense than seeing bodies torn apart or blood squirting across the frame. And scarier yet: it’s all completely real.
The success of Jesus Camp is a testament to Ewing and Grady’s filmmaking skills. Unlike the slew of recent political documentaries with manipulative narrations and feeble attempts at being objective, this movie strives to be even-handed. All they do is sit with a video camera and film what is actually happening; if the subjects don’t like how they are portrayed, they have nobody to blame but themselves. The sole voice of dissent, Christian Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, appears in less than 10 minutes of the movie.
The documentary centers on Evangelical kids from Missouri, who attend the “Kids On Fire” camp (aka Jesus Camp) in North Dakota. The key featured players are Levi (12), a pony-tailed lad who claims he was “saved” at 5 years old and wants to be a preacher; Tori (10), a pro-life enthusiast who enjoys dancing to Christian rock, although she struggles to dance for God instead of “for the flesh”; and Rachael (9), a wannabe missionary who walks up to perfect strangers and suggests they are going to hell unless they get enlightened. Ah, kids say the darnedest things.
Becky Fischer, the Pastor who runs the Jesus Camp, is frighteningly good at what she does. Her commanding presence and booming voice keep the kids listening, and clinging on to her every word. She uses visual aids to express messages—such as baby fetus toys for the kids to touch, and life-size cardboard cutouts of President Bush to worship—and leads them in prayers. In arguably the most disturbing scenes in the movie, kids scream the Lord’s name while tears pour down their faces, they break into sweats and shaking fits, and even erupt into seizure-like spasms on the floor. Are they really feeling God’s presence, or is this new form of brainwashing the latest means of child abuse?
Either way, their parents are all for it. Early in the movie, kids are shown being home-schooled (a common practice among Evangelical Christians.) The parents teach them tidbits like, “science doesn’t prove anything,” “there is no such thing as global warming,” (sorry Al Gore) and “creationism is the only thing that makes sense.” But don’t worry, they find time to have fun, too—in a scene where the kids are in a bowling alley, Rachael is shown holding a ball, praying to above for a strike. In the next flash, the ball rolls pitifully down the gutter.
Jesus Camp is a powerful film because it sheds light on an expanding, extremist culture that people like to believe is a small segment of the population. Hold that thought, folks. Evangelical Christians are taking the nation by storm, and the kids in this film will likely be running the country someday. Just like their predecessors are right now.