Review of Jesus Camp
Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing co-directJesus Camp, a documentary about Evangelical Christian youths who attend “Kids On Fire”, a religious summer camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. I had the privilege to interview the directors.
Magnolia Pictures will release Jesus Camp on September 22nd, 2006.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did the music change since Jesus Camp played in the Tribeca Film Festival?
RG: We didn’t screen it before it was quite finished and it was just temporary music. It was something that Heidi [Ewing] and I were not comfortable with. We felt that it was too judgmental-sounding and we were painfully trying to come to the film with a neutral eye. Of course, choice of music is the director’s commentary. The music was so important that we get right, so I feel much better with the music that we ended up and the new score that we came up with.
HE: Everybody was always looking for our [political] bias and looking so desperately to find out what we feel that everything was scrutinized so much more than in Boys of Baraka, the music especially. If it was a tad dark, they were like “they’re demonizing this movie”. Actually, the music wasn’t even a big deal, it was just that people were becoming conscious of it, so it became a liability in our screening.
NYC: What is the message of Jesus Camp?
RG: I wouldn’t say that there’s a single message that we’re trying to get out through the movie. There are so many things to latch onto in this film that people can come away with and I really do believe that it depends on your world view on what you’re going to get out of it. At least, that’s what I’ve seen so far. It raises the issue of religion and politics, obviously. It raises the questions of how people raise their kids [and] on Christianity in America. There are so many things that depend on what’s important to you.
HE: One of the messages, if there is a message, is something that Rachel [Grady] and I experienced making this film, which is that a lot of us in the big city have this concept that we’re the center of the universe and that we know all things and that we’re on the cutting-edge of culture in the country. What I personally realized is that it’s a great big country out there and you’ve got 100 million Evangelical Christians, of course with many different stripes and beliefs and we’re not putting anyone in the same pie. However, there is a giant number of American [who] are actively involved to encourage their world view on the rest of the country through writing to a Congressman, writing the FCC and getting involved politically even at the most local level and that’s their democratic right. While everyone else has been sort of asleep, there’s a large number of American who are actively working to push a more religious and conservative [state of mind] across this country. So, that was something that really struck home while making this film.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Are the Evangelical Christians unaware of their political influences?
RG: I think it’s sincere. That’s one of the most fascinating twists. They don’t see what they’re doing as political; they see it as Christian activism. They see praying for the President as something that the Bible mandates. Abortion is not something that’s a political issue; it’s an issue of life and death for God. They do not see themselves as political activists. For me, that says that their theology is so intertwined with what secular people would consider politics that for them it seems less. [Neither Heidi Ewing] nor I understood what a “culture war” means. What I realized was that just because the majority of people don’t know they’re engaged in a culture war, does not mean that war is not indeed happening.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What about the leaders?
HE: They are absolutely 100% politically engaged, but we’re talking about the constituents. Our film is about the regular people—the everyday people that get behind some of the political initiatives that are brought forward by the leadership. We enjoyed that approach because there is an innocence and that’s powerful. They’re not sitting at home and figuring out how they’re going to re-elect a republican. They’re just doing what they think is absolutely what God mandated upon them. You can’t reason your way around someone’s belief that they’re doing God’s will. The people in our film are doing what they’re think is right. They also admit that they’re interested in reshaping the culture. They find the culture base [and] vile [and] do not expose their children to it—they don’t hide that. They think a lot of things about our culture are disgusting and they’re out to change those things. To most people in the secular world, that’s very political; for them, that’s their world view.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you restrain your opinions in the film?
RG: We learned very early on just by showing people the footage that these were two segments of the human experience—politics and faith—that ultimately people don’t want to be told how to feel or think. We thought that if we presented the most neutral depiction of what we saw [and] what we filmed, it would actually be the most provocative. It would force the [audience] to question how they feel and what they think. It forces the viewer to have an inner dialogue, but if we give them our point of view on a platter, they’re not forced to do that. So, Heidi [Ewing] and I had to do it, so we want the viewers to do it as well.
HE: The film chronicles the experience that we had. The beginning of the film is a bit shocking. The kids are crying and it’s confusing, people are upset—that’s what was happening to us. Then we said, “Let’s go deep. Oh, there’s this Christian home-schooling curriculum.” And then we realized, “Oh my gosh, this is extremely political.” There’s the George W. Bush cut-out and Sandra Day O’Conner and everyone was praying on it and there was a huge issue that everything is political. The audience, I hope, undergoes the experience that we went through almost in the order that we had it. Things started dawning on us and that’s when we started bringing the voice of dissent, Mike Papantonio, and try to have a dialogue.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Have you been tempted to convert to Evangelism?
HE: No, I’m not a church-going person. We tried very hard to understand their point of view. We really tried to listen hard and to get to the bottom of what it is that they’re trying to do and I guess [we’re] just trying to communicate that.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Was it ever seductive?
RG: Well, I’m Jewish. I think I’d probably would have been a good get for somebody, but I resisted. We were very respectful. I think that they have a lot of admiration for Jews, actually, which I didn’t know before. I didn’t realize that they’re very pro-Israel—they’re Zionists. Despite the fact that they all have Israeli flags in their home, they didn’t know too many Jews, so they were kind of excited to have me around.
HE: They actually asked us to pray on the Israeli flag one day, much to my delight. It’s interesting that there was a lot of admiration for the Jews and a suspicion regarding Catholics.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you approach Becky Fischer and convince her to be in the film?
HE: Basically, we were doing research to do a film about children of faith. In Boys of Baraka, there’s Devon Brown, a 12-year-old Baptist preacher and he’s amazing and we never met a kid so into his church. So, that inspired the idea. We started researching and calling different churches and Becky Fischer’s name kept coming up in couple of big churches in the south that had youth programs. So, we went on her website and checked it out and as soon as we got on the phone with her, we knew that there was a movie here. We went out and talked to her, she saw Boys of Baraka, we told her what we wanted to do and she trust us to make the movie and gave us access.