Jesus Camp

Over the past decade, Evangelical Christians have become a force to be reckoned with within American politics. They have very strong beliefs on concepts of right and wrong, and their support is sometimes enough to win an election. Jesus Camp takes a look at one of the fringes of the movement - the "Kids on Fire" summer camp in North Dakota, where Pastor Becky Fisher trains children to be the next generation of Christian leaders. It's a frightening look at something that sure feels like brainwashing of children, but does not come off extremely strongly, only because directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady make the film feel so one-sided.

The only opposing voice comes from Mike Papatino, a radio commentator. They film him every once in a while, sitting in his booth in front of a microphone. What he says makes sense, but when juxtaposed against footage of a child crying while praying, has little hope of swaying anybody's opinion. Fisher believes that she must train the children in order to create a strong generation of Christian leaders. She argues that some schools in the Middle East begin training children at the age of 5 to use guns and grenades, so she should be able to equip the children spiritually so they could be strong warriors for Christ.

Ewing and Grady primarily follow Fisher, Levi (a kid with a humongous mullet), Rachel (an awkward little girl), and Tory. The camp lasts for a week, and much of the footage focuses on large group meetings that play out like old-time revivals. Fisher stands in front of the children, earnestly preaching to the children (and railing against Harry Potter). The children raptly listen, and they pray in groups, with Fisher speaking in tongues and the children often crying. They pray in front of a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush, Levi preaches to everybody, and many kids give a performance where they sing and bang together batons. Everything feels so loaded, as if Ewing and Grady culled together the kookiest information for the maximum shock value. It's hard to believe that little kids can sit in chairs all day long listening to preaching. What else do they do? This documentary is fairly short, and the directors spend time introducing the viewers to the principal characters before they go to camp, which takes even more time away from footage of the camp itself (amusing located in a place called Devil's Lake).

The footage that is shown is pretty disturbing, which is the message that Ewing and Grady wanted to convey. They wanted to shock the audience. It certainly feels like brainwashing. How can children so young understand some of the central concepts of religion? Does it really make sense that a five-year-old Levi felt his life was empty so he gave his life to Jesus? It's one thing to take children to Vacation Bible School, and another to train them for a spiritual war. Young children are extremely impressionable, so when they're crying and speaking in tongues, it's not clear if they are being moved by religion, or just being young impressionable kids. The real test of Jesus Camp would be to revisit these children around the age of 18 or 19, to see if their beliefs were strong enough to withstand puberty, adolescence, and peer pressure.

Mongoose Rates It: Okay.
1 hour, 25 minutes, Rated PG-13 for some discussions of mature subject matter.

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