Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Jesus Camp (Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing, 2006)

I left my 90 minutes or so at Jesus Camp with mixed feelings... This doco, nominated for an Academy Award, follows a group of children as they prepare to go to the 'Kids On Fire' (less exciting than it sounds) evangelical pentecostal summer camp, run by Pastor Becky Fischer, where they will learn to be tomorrow's soldiers of Jesus.

The doco takes a very hands-off approach: no narration, and only a few titles, generally giving factual information. Scenes of the children, Becky and others preparing for camp, and episodes during the camp itself, are intercut with long car-window shots of suburban America, overlaid by an atmospheric soundtrack, which were alright to begin with, but became irritating as they continued without necessarily adding anything to the film. We also cut periodically to a radio show host, who is a non-fundamentalist Christian (Mike Papantonio) who opposes evangelical attempts to knock down the wall between church and state, and who we finally see debate and challenge Becky on air. However, if his presence is intended as a counterbalance demonstrating that not all Christianity is of Becky's stripe, it doesn't quite work - whether you agree with his views or not (I do, as far as the ideal relationship between politics and religion goes) his arrogance and repetition, though perhaps desirable qualities in a radio show host, don't make him a sympathetic or admirable character.

Overall, the doco takes on a number of questions without really answering them. On the one hand, we're presented with American evangelical Christianity in its full, loony (casting out of demons in the electronics, anyone?), unswerving, righteous, morally contradictory glory; but this isn't, I would think, anything anyone doesn't know about - and the same applies to the way in which this religion is passed on to children. So, if you want to be amused and horrified by the fundamentalist Christian Right, you've come to the 'right' film (boom tish).

There are some very interesting questions raised by the film: what's the difference between indoctrination and education? What right do parents have to control the circumstances of their children's lives, particularly in terms of education? What effect does heavy early religious indoctrination have on adult life? Do we need to protect children from the realities of adult life, or teach them what they are and how to deal with them, and, if so, how to do this in a sensitive way? What is legitimate action by a pressure group within a nation-state, where do the barriers start to break down, and whose responsibility is it to police them? But these questions aren't really answered in any meaningful way. To my mind, this is because the doco focusses entirely on acts of religion without putting them into any context (perhaps because the interviewers' role in any interviews is cut out). How did the adults who indoctrinate these children come to their own perspective? What is the background of the participants, adults and children, in terms of class, race, community, life experiences, and how does this relate to their practice of religion? In this sense, although the film is not in any overt way editorially judgemental, I didn't feel that it was in fact any kind of in-depth analysis of the meaning of fundamentalist Christianity, either personally in the lives of its subjects, or on a broader social level, despite some mention of the appointment of Samuel Alito, Jr., which seemed to be a nod to politics, and of course the actual politics which the children are subjected to, particularly around the makeup of government, around global warming and abortion. Context is also a problem inasmuch as we have no idea how these kids got involved in Becky's ministry in the first place, when she set it up, where the physical events of the film are taking place, and other minor but important details.

The doco shows, rather than telling the viewer anything, leaving one (as mentioned above) amused and horrified, but not satisfied. In this sense, the documentary style of allowing the subjects to present themselves 'unmediated' seemed disempowering to the subjects (although to external appearances, at least, they all seem as happily empowered as you can imagine anyone being) - presenting a doco which strives to seem neutral, but in fact has something of the 'look at the freaks' about it. I don't mind a voyeuristic peer and laugh at the freaks, but I'd also like to know why and how they got where they are.

I don't usually watch DVD extras without a good reason, but, being left with this feeling, I watched the outtakes, and found scenes which I'd think were stronger than any included in the film - for example, a young girl talking about her long-term plan to 'take care of' (convert) her friend and next-door neighbour; or a cringeworthily hilarious scene in which Ted Haggard teases the cameraman mid-sermon (the only time in which the filmic fourth wall, the illusion of there being no documentary maker, is ruptured).

Overall, the film certainly has amusement value, and there are also scenes which this viewer at least found disturbing, not because of the dissimilarity between one's own views and those of the subjects, but because of the similarity - for example, I felt a shock of recognition at Becky's description of the world as a 'sick ole world' and her relationship to what she saw as an immoral and decadent society. Ultimately, this is definitely a thought-provoking work - but not so much for what it does right, as for what it fails to do.

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