In an evangelical Christian summer camp in the US, children as young as five are taught about religion and the importance of becoming good Christian soldiers.
The film focuses primarily on three kids: the precocious and irritatingly ponytailed Levi, who is home-schooled by his mother using creationist science textbooks and wants to grow up to be a pastor; the rather sweet Rachel, who just seems confused; and the thoroughly amusing Tory, who enjoys jigging along to Christian heavy metal just as long as she isn’t dancing “for the flesh” (it’s a fine line, apparently). Rachel’s story is the most affecting. Allowed to air her thoughts in long, single takes, she speaks in confused soundbites obviously drilled into her by other, older people, and seems to be simmering with so much conflicting information that she might explode at any point. Levi and Tory might seem happy enough, but Rachel feels in need of rescue.
The camp itself is presided over by Becky Fischer, director of Kids In Ministry International, who is happy to admit that she’s training Christian soldiers for a future war one hopes is referred to metaphorically, but suspects is not. The directors’ claim to impartiality is slightly suspect given the fact that something akin to Darth Vader’s Imperial March is often playing in the background in Fischer’s scenes, but to a large extent she’s hoist by her own petard. With a pathological hatred of Harry Potter (“Do not make a hero out of a warlock!”), she cuts a slightly tragic figure. She’d be comical if she didn’t seem so dangerous.
Equally objectionable are pastor Ted Haggard and pro-lifer Lou Engle, who takes the kids to blub outside the White House with placards. But Jesus Camp is careful to allow Christian talk-radio host Mike Papantonio to be the voice of reason. There’s a slight feeling of tokenism to his inclusion, making the point that Christianity is as capable of clear-headedness and coherent thought as it is of lunacy and bigotry. In the end it’s hard to know whether Jesus Camp would benefit more from Papantonio as a counsellor, or from Wednesday Addams liberating the kids and burning the place down.
Funny, sad and horrifying. Anti-fundamentalist rather than anti-Christian, this deserves to preach to more than just the converted.
Reviewed by Owen Williams