Tory in Jesus Camp. Copyright Magnolia Pictures.
Fascinated disgust and aghast amusement are two feelings I don't experience often enough. Jesus Camp elicits both in spades. This doc by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka) travels into the darkest heart of America's evangelical Christian movement: a North Dakota summer camp that whips born-again children — most already homeschooled into such beliefs as the nonexistence of evolution and global warming — into religious frenzies. Tongues are spoken. Pint-size preachers take the stage. Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer warns her charges of the evils of Harry Potter: "warlocks are enemies of God!" (Later, there's a great moment when one little rebel admits he's watched all the Potter films on the sly; the wide-eyed looks on the other kids' faces are priceless.)
Children's minister Becky Fischer. Copyright Magnolia Pictures.
Though Air America radio host Mike Papantonio (a Christian but not a fundamentalist) steps in from time to time as a de facto voice of reason, Jesus Camp operates without narration or slanted editing. It doesn't need it. As is, the doc offers a clear-eyed view of a religion that might seem on the fringes but in fact claims huge, ever-growing numbers. The film also places emphasis on the palpable evangelical presence in American politics — with a chilling look toward the future, when this brainwashed-from-birth generation will eagerly join the right-wing voting bloc.
I spoke with co-director Heidi Ewing hours before Jesus Camp’s sold-out Times Square premiere Sept 22 (the film opens Sept 29 in San Francsico). She was understandably a tad nervous: “I’ve got some butterflies that I didn’t think I’d have, but I think that’s normal.”
San Francisco Bay Guardian: Didn’t the film already open a couple of weeks ago in “heartland” states like Colorado, Missouri, and Oklahoma?
Heidi Ewing: It opened in, like, Springfield and Kansas City and Colorado Springs, and it’s been light attendance, but it was sort of to be expected, you know what I mean? Also, a lot of the press hadn’t come out yet. A lot of press is actually gonna happen this week, national press, and there’s gonna be a lot next week. You know, I think [the early release] was sort of an experimental idea, and I think they’re gonna hold those cities for awhile. But I think New York is the real determiner of how it will do overall, so we’ll have to see. What did you think of the movie?
SFBG: It was scary! But also really interesting. Living in San Francisco, I am not exposed to that kind of capital-R Religion at all, ever.
SFBG: I liked how the film presented its subjects in an even-handed way. The editing wasn’t manipulative at all. Yet, you did put statistics up on the screen so the viewer would know just how many bajillion evangelicals are in America, how many home-school their kids, and so on.
HE: We really were trying to contextualize the experience, because of course you’re only dealing with a few people in the movie. I think people are curious: how many people share most of these same beliefs? We tried to not shower people with too many stats, but enough to contextualize things. That’s also why the radio host [Mike Papantonio] is there. He helps contextualize some of the problems people have with the political agenda of the Religious Right.
SFBG: Papantonio is on Air America, but he’s a Christian host?
HE: He’s a Christian, and he’s an attorney. And I think he’s not just on Air America -- he’s got other stations that he’s on. But he’s heard regularly on Air America. He’s a churchgoing guy and a pretty serious Christian, so we thought he was a good voice. It was hard to find somebody who was on the radio, who was extremely interested in this subject as a liberal Christian. Most of the Christian radio airwaves are very conservative. So he fit the bill.
SFBG: And you and your co-director are not conservative Christians at all, right?
HE: No, I was raised a Catholic. I’m a lapsed Catholic. I’m from Detroit. And Rachel [Grady] is Jewish, a secular Jew. She was raised in DC. Neither of us go to church. Neither of us have any problem with religion at all, but we did kind of walk into this with beginner’s eyes, if you will. We didn’t have a lot of experience. I think that made the film -- I hope it made the film more balanced. Like, we’d never been hurt or helped by any born-again Christian or organization. I think a lot of people who’ve had that experience one way or another, you know, it’s hard not to be biased in one way. And I’m not saying we had no bias -- we really tried our best to understand what we saw, and what was going on to the best of our ability, and ask the right questions, and not be like, “Oh, this is totally weird.” We really tried to get it. Because we were trying to translate something to our audience, and hopefully it worked.
Jesus Camp directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Copyright Magnolia Pictures.
SFBG: Some of what you captured, especially the church services that got really emotional, was really quite intimate. Yet they allowed you to film, even though you were outsiders. How were you able to get that kind of access?
HE: They were pretty open, honestly. It’s funny, with this film, people always ask about access because of course we got incredible access. We didn’t do or say or approach anyone any differently than we have with other films in the past. We told them what we wanted to do. We told them why we were interested. They thought it would give them a fair shake -- they still feel that they’ve gotten a fair shake, all the subjects of the film, except Ted Haggard [President of the National Association of Evangelicals, the largest evangelical group in America with 30 million members] is rejecting the movie, which we can get to later. We just told them we were going to give it our best shot to do an honest and accurate portrayal of their lives and beliefs. And that’s what we set out to do. The film started out about children in ministry and theology, but it definitely took a turn because we started to sense that there was, even in this small religious community, a lot of political overtones. Obviously, we didn’t want to ignore that.
We started to try to make the connection between the constituents of the religious leadership and the broader political context of what’s going on in America. Certainly, the people in our film are not religious leaders or political leaders in the movement. But they are their constituents. We thought it was interesting to sort of walk in the shoes of the people who listen to James Dobson [host of Focus on the Family], and the people who get voting advice from Ted Haggard and Jerry Falwell. So we thought it was more interesting than just cutting into some talking heads, you know, with Pat Robertson. We didn’t want to make that kind of movie. We thought this was a much more interesting insight into the community, into the political nature of it. We decided to tell the greater story as well as the small story once these political overtones started to come out.
SFBG: Were there points during filming when you found it difficult to be objective? I’m thinking of the moments when the kids are sobbing and speaking in tongues ...
HE: It was really hard. It was the hardest film I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve been making documentaries for television and for the big screen since 1995, 1996, and I’ve never worked on a harder project. It was never more difficult to stay objective. The shoots were exhausting, draining -- it was difficult for everyone. I'm not gonna lie. It was often, at the very beginning especially, confusing as to why these kids were crying and what was happening. It was very tough. I'd never seen that before. I'd shot religious services before in other countries that had that kind of ecstatic intensity, but I hadn’t ever seen that from a kid wearing a Gap t-shirt, you know what I mean? It’s a total paradigm shift.
SFBG: Why didn’t you focus more on the parents?
HE: We tried to integrate the parents as much as possible, when we thought it was relevent. We shot 300 hours of footage, and it’s an 85-minute film. So it was hard to figure out what to leave in and what to take out. When it came to the adults, Becky [Fischer] seemed to be the most articulate, and we tried to show the home life of the children -- but I think a little goes a long way with the home life. We have two sections with parents, and I think people got the picture. We had a lot more scenes at home but they kind of felt repetitive, and we didn’t want to fetishize the home schooling. We had a million home-schooling scenes with all the parents and they were all fantastic, you know. But we had to tell the story the best we could, use the scene that would drive the story forward, and then move on.
Levi in Jesus Camp. Copyright Magnolia Pictures.
SFBG: There’s one scene where the boys are in the camp cabin, playing with flashlights, that’s maybe the only moment of genuine little-kid joy in the film. Of course, it’s immediately halted by one of the dads, who's concerned about the maybe-evil implications of telling ghost stories.
HE: It’s interesting because these kids live an everyday, ordinary life, so much like other American kids, but then when you scratch the surface everything has a twist. The dance school that [11-year-old subject] Tory goes to is a home-school only dance class, for only home-schooled kids during the week, in the middle of the afternoon. They pray before they dance. All the music is religious. The sports team the kids play on, they pray beforehand, it’s home-schooled only, and they wear little bracelets that say “How would Jesus compete?” So every single thing that you recognize as just a regular American upbriging, if you scratch the surface, if you go a little deeper, you realize, no -- there’s a totally different worldview being infused in even the most seemingly mundane actions. So, there’s like a parallel America situation going on there. And it was fascinating, really.
SFBG: Off-camera, did the kids seem brainwashed to you?
HE: You know, the kids were not robotic. Of course everyone takes cues from their parents, and they learn most of what they learn about the world through their parents. These kids are no different from that, but they did not answer questions robotically. Their parents were not in the room. They weren’t trained to tell us [anything]. They were extremely articulate, extremely mature for their age, and had these very, very deep-rooted beliefs. Now, of course you could say that’s all because of the parenting and they’re completely sheltered and they don’t know anything else. There’s a million arguments you could make. I think the real proof is what happens when they come of age. If we could come back in ten years and see, did it stick? Is [13-year-old] Levi a minister? Has somebody left the faith? That’s the problem -- the big unanswered questions.
SFBG: Would you consider doing a follow-up?
HE: We would love to do a follow-up. If they’ll have us, we’ll do it.
Rachael in Jesus Camp. Copyright Magnolia Pictures.
SFBG: What’s the response been like from the people featured in the movie? You mentioned Ted Haggard has spoken out against it.
HE: Well, our subjects of the film support the movie. They like the movie. They came to see the movie in Kansas City and Springfield, they brought their churches, they’re proud of what they’re doing. They’re not embarassed. I think they’re surprised by the controversy. They’re surprised by the fact that they’re perceived as political. They don’t consider themselves political -- strangely, they don’t think what they’re doing is political. They think they’re doing God’s will. To every secular person, that looks very political, you know. That was something that was kind of fascinating for us. It’s like, the anti-abortion scene -- they’re saying, “We think that’s murder! So we have to stop it.” For them it’s very absolute. But they like the film and they’re supporting it. Becky [Fischer] also -- Becky’s taking a lot of heat, obviously, but she’s standing behind the movie and what she’s doing and her ministry.
Ted Haggard is rejecting the movie. He doesn’t like how he looks. He thinks that -- you’d have to ask him what he thinks. But we went in his church and we filmed that scene and I think what you see in that scene is absolutely what was happening. We did not try to make him look any particular way. He kind of spoke into the camera for both of his sermons. There was no way around that. That was not, like, five seconds. He did it over and over again. Anybody who was at the church that day will agree that’s what was going on. I think it’s a shame that he’s totally rejecting it because the people in the film are offended that he would totally distance himself from them, because they feel part of his greater community. He is a charismatic Christian, and so are they. Anyway, I think people can make up their minds for themselves, and telling all of his congregants to stay away from the movie as if it were dangerous for them is disappointing. We have very high faith in our audiences to take away what they take away, without being protected in any kind of way.
SFBG: Why do you think he said the movie is dangerous?
HE: I don’t want to put words in his mouth -- he didn’t say it’s dangerous. He’s telling people actively not to see it. Actively, actively not to see the movie. To me the implication of that is, that it could do some kind of harm in some kind of way. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t like the film,” but we’re getting calls from people in Colorado Springs who said they called the church and asked about the movie and got five phone calls back saying “Don’t see this movie!”
SFBG: Do you think that George W. Bush [who “appears” in the film via a cardboard cutout that the campers pray over] will see it?
HE: Do think George Bush will see it? Oh man. I don’t know. I bet a lot of people who work in the government, when the film opens in Washington DC will go see it. Even secretly. They might secretly go and check it out. But I don’t know. I think people who work in the White House will end up seeing the movie, yeah.
Jesus Camp opens Sept 29 in Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock for showtimes.