Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Jesus Camp (2006): Fear of the Other

Jesus Camp (2006)
dir: Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing

In 2001, the horrifying documentary Hell House landed on the scene, showing how much the Evangelical system manipulated the emotions of damaged people. George Ratliff documented the making of a religious house of social horrors that was used as a recruiting tool. Ratliff took the time to go into the background of the adults and the teenage youth in the scene to humanize their worries and to try to find out what their fears actually were.

A lot changed in the ensuing 5 years. When Hell House was made, Bill Clinton was in office, and George W. Bush was campaigning to be president (he was elected by the time Hell House was released), and 9/11 wasn't even a thing. By the time Jesus Camp was made, George W. Bush won a re-election, 9/11 had united a nation then divided it, and the national dialogue was reaching a fevered pitch of desperation and anger with the only targets being the opposite ideological stance.

You can feel it in the different tonalities of the nation in these two movies. Jesus Camp, is a movie made to demonize the religious right. It's purely a rant that others an ideology that others an ideology. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Jesus Camp documents the lives of a couple homeschooled Evangelical Christian kids who are sent off to the Kids on Fire summer camp, where a hellfire and brimstone preacher lady trains them to be warriors of God. The home life that Grady and Ewing document is of the usual "science lies to you" brand that also has the regular factually questionable parroting of the usual right wing talking points. There's a minor sense of their back story, but Grady and Ewing cut out most of their humanity in favor of their fearful talking points, and also to give way too much time to some bullshit left-wing radio host and, in the movie's most ironic scene, a megachurch led by Ted Haggard.

It's obvious coming out of the gate that Grady and Ewing aren't here to understand the natives. They don't want to know what makes the evangelicals tick. They're obviously afraid of the natives. And the natives are just as afraid of what these documentarians stand for: that is the liberal left wing political parties. The choices that Grady and Ewing highlights in the lives of the evangelical families are quotes by the mothers like "Did you get to the part where science doesn't prove anything?" Or, they have little girl Rachael, on a bowling outing, try to convert an innocent young woman bowling in the alley next to her. And the camera lingers on the young woman to show her awkwardness from the interaction.

We're meant to relate to the young woman as the camera lingers. We're meant to think "these are freaks, and why would this girl invade my privacy like that?" After the interaction, Rachael says that God told her to try to convert the woman to save her. It was a feeling inside her.

All documentaries are built by their directors in post more so than even in the actual documenting. There are probably a million different ways one could build a documentary from the various footage. But, Grady and Ewing capture the freak nature of the families, Becky Fischer, who leads the camp, and the reverence of the kids that we're meant to be scared for American society and feel sad for the brainwashing the kids without understanding why anybody is the way they are.

Who is Becky Fischer? What makes her tick? Why is she the way she is? Does she truly believe her mission comes from a pure place? Was she always such a devout Christian? Did she come back to the flock and decide that she needed to preach to everybody? Is she really somebody who is uncomfortable with letting others live in the way they want to live? Did she come out of an abusive relationship with an agnostic or atheist?

These questions are left relatively unanswered. In fact, there is only one hint of a variety of lives left in the film. After Fischer preaches against Harry Potter, one boy says "My mom won't let me watch the films, so I watch them at my dad's house." Hinting that he comes from a broken home, and that his mom is an evangelical devout, while his father is not nearly as devout. There is no hint at the source of the problem that led to the divorce or anything.

Grady and Ewing mostly highlight the craziest parts of Fischer and the camp. They highlight Fischer praying to God that their sound system works before speaking in tongues. They highlight Fischer berating the kids that they have to work to reach divinity. They highlight the youth protesting somewhere against abortion with red tape over their mouth, a look that was adopted from the AIDS crisis and then from Rage Against the Machine's censorship. And, we're meant to be fearful of this oncoming warrior with a "Look what they're doing to their kids."

This is all accented by overly dramatic cinematography during the more evangelical scenes. Dutch angles, low angles of girls with tears in their eyes, or high angles of boys falling to the ground in religious ecstasy highlight just how distanced Grady and Ewing are from their subjects. They don't want to know these people. They just want to exploit them.

And then there is Ted Haggard. He, inexplicably, takes up the 10-15 minutes towards the end of the movie in order to preach about the evil of Homosexuals (LOLOLOL) and to point out the ubiquity of megachurches. They bring Levi to meet with Haggard, but it's all a silly endeavor that takes time away from any understanding of the people in the movie.

Ewing and Grady close out the film with a phone interview between the left wing radio host and Becky Fischer which hints at the host trumping Fischer with his questions. But, it isn't a discussion. It's two just two closed-minded blowhards who don't listen to each other. Maybe Ewing and Grady are hinting that neither the left nor the right are listen to each other, but it doesn't seem like it, especially with their editing. Instead, they set out to make a monster movie from a section of our culture, and never come to an understanding with the people they're exploiting.

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