Jesus Camp has its own crossfire to bear. Perhaps the biggest burden that its filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are forced by their detractors to overcome are the accusations of being part of an uber-leftist, anti-religious agenda. Its an individualistic venture to be sure but one with a philosophy undertaken that maintains the filmmakers subjectivity (even as it purports objectivity) and in its most distilled state, a continued articulation of the waging culture war in Middle America. With Jesus Camp, it seems like at least one side now has an upper hand.
Within Ewing and Gradys apparently unrushed observations lies a construct of a horror film, set in the unassuming heartlands of the country. The heightened tension eked out of its creepy ambience and exaggerated scores ultimately threatens to invalidate its composite, as if trusting the inherent verities of its expansive subject would be insufficient. But to its documentarians credit, the horror story that theyve attempted to craft ends up being quite chilling in spite of its discernable engineering. The real brunt of its repulsion comes from the understanding the human capacity for zealotry and the lines that are being crossed.
Politics becomes part and parcel of the belief system that the Pentecostal Pastor Becky Fischer preaches at her "Kids on Fire" camp in North Dakota. Awkward prayer sessions extolling the staples of the harshest right wing conservatism becomes a facet of the Bush syndrome flowing through the congregation. Fischers candidness in front of the camera reveals a woman who was brought up on the very system she vehemently advocates, fueling a legacy being passed on to her charges. Theres no sense of her being anything other than what she presents herself to be and what she believes to be true. Then again, the filmmakers do show politics rearing its ugly, disingenuous head in the form of New Life Churchs influential founder, Ted Haggard whose smugness in this film was worn down considerably when a scandal broke just weeks after the films release of his trysts with a young, male prostitute. Its an apt precursor to know that his smarmy, distrustful faade during his interview hid the hypocrisies that realistically thrive in organisations.
The silent juxtaposition of the varying degrees of radicalism is the films strongest intrigue. Routinely comparing the fanaticism involved in Jihads and the veritable boot camps preparation of its young uns, Fischer adds to the militaristic inclination of her fervour and readies kids who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam and that shed like to see them laying down their lives for the gospel". For all the polemicising rhetoric against the enemy and the constant threats from terrorists, to Fischer and her brethren, the biggest menace remains the unbelievers in their very own nation seen when a large part of her sermons are spent on persecuting pop culture and skewing the natural inclinations of her young contingent to the most literal passages of the bible. The three preteens featured in the film maintain an innocence that becomes all the more sympathetic when we sense the disconnect between their childhood and their parents ideologies.
Despite deriding the war of cultures being waged by the fundamentalists, this documentary becomes a part of that very war and slings its own weight around when it enlists the harshly sweeping anti-fundamentalist views of Christian Air America radio host Mike Papantonio as a foil, even with its previous interviewees damning themselves to the audience (vis--vis the documentarys tone of encroaching terror) and giving enough ammunition to the converted, suggesting that the film is not entirely as evenhanded as it proposes to be.