Monday, March 12, 2007

Review: Jesus Camp (2006)

When I decided I was going to write a review of this film, I knew that it would be an uncomfortable challenge for me not to judge the people or views expressed in this film. I am going to focus on the actual film itself, but I most likely will have to dive into the content as well.

I also would like to express this now before I begin this review: while my blog is at times intentionally sarcastic and bitchy, it will not always have that tone. No one is a one dimensional person and while this Trent Sketch character may be dedicated to providing reviews of anything and everything the world of media has to offer, they will not all be written in the same tone, have the same style, and be seen as the same style of review. Sometimes, humor is the best way to express an idea, sometimes, anger, but always, it will depend on the context of the subject matter. A review of Norbit will not take the same approach as a review of a documentary about a significant political issue, and that is something that I will stand by with this blog until the day I stop writing in it. Nothing is as clear cut as always being an aggressive, insincere ass about other people's work, and truly - it is never my goal to come across that way. I know I cross the line (everyone does), but I really do want this to become a steady source of reviews that will entertain but also be a springboard for thought and discussion on media.

Disclaimer: unfortunately, Jesus Camp did not win any awards. It is, however, a very award-worthy film that has been recognized with glowing reviews and intelligent discussions that, for this kind of topic, is all the reward it needs. That is why it is being discussed on Award Winning Film day.

The Review:
Jesus Camp is the quite possibly the most talked about documentary of 2006. The documentary looks at the lives of three children, no older than 10 years old, attending famed Evangelical Christian Youth Minster Becky Fischer's week long religious sleep away camp. The goal: continue their service as soldier's of the Lord.

I believe this documentary is very suspect. It is my understanding that a documentary should ideally take an objective view of a non-fiction subject and craft it into a narrative of an idea (a political concept, historical event/figure, current events, religion, lives, competition - actual things that have happened/are happening/are believed to be happening/happened). However, this film subtly makes it strong biases known at the very start of the film. Instead of allowing viewers to come out with a conclusion based on their own understanding of the footage presented, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady immediately cast judgement on the Evangelical Christians featured in the film, Becky Fischer in particular, by using a radio personality's rants on the destruction of our youth and America by Evangelical Christians as the intended voice of reason in the film. Sure, there is evidence presented to support this man's statements, but there is also evidence to go directly against it. The directors have attempted to portray the adults shown in this documentary as horrible human beings who brainwash their children into blindly believing extreme conservative political views under the mask of religion.

Do I agree with what anyone in this film is doing? Not entirely. My own belief (I'm a Catholic) is that people should be free to believe what they want to believe, but need to hold true to those beliefs and not compromise them. If you believe that the destruction of the environment is the most important issue in the world, don't just say that and do nothing: stand by it. How does this relate to the film? A lot.

I found this to be simply the most disturbing film I have ever viewed in my life, mostly because I have never experienced anything like this before. I have watched films filled with murder, rape, assault, harassment, violence, stalking, fights, blood, gore, sex, nudity, torture, and far worse: but those were concepts that I had been exposed to in some way (either in real life or, for most of it, through the news, television, radio, discussion, books). But I had no working knowledge of how Evangelical Christianity works, the belief structures, and the rabid dedication of its practitioners. Becky Fischer mentions that liberals are going to be shaken to their core by what they see in the footage, but I don't believe that is entirely accurate. Anyone who has not experienced this kind of passion towards religion will feel something from the footage. I've never experienced a child show such dedication to a cause that they start crying, and shaking, and calling out for what they believe in. It's disturbing because it's something that I had never seen before.

The documentary tries to make it seem like anyone who believes in this is wrong. Is a horrible human being. Is crazy. Is a danger to society. I'm not saying they are right, but I'm most certainly not going to say they are wrong either.

This type of power that comes with belief can be used for good (I believe Becky Fischer truly believes it is her duty to share her beliefs with young people, and all she is trying to do is awaken these beliefs in young people - even if her language tends to be extreme at times, and her choice of analogy ill-suited towards positive representation of her beliefs to non-Evangelicals: her heart is in the right place, and I can respect that), for manipulation (there were two other preachers featured in the film: one who taped shut the mouths of children to protest abortion and provide a medically inaccurate depiction of the development of the fetus in an effort to trick children into fighting his political fight, the other who talked about how Evangelicals are running America, and how great it is to wield that kind of power and control), or for self-advancing attacks (the radio announcer was using attacks against this type of Christian mindset to advance his own political and religious causes, not stand on his own beliefs but trample over someone else's for power).

As flawed and biased as the film is, it nonetheless makes a strong statement: something many films that follow traditional thoughts or practices fail to do in the slightest. If nothing else, you should try to watch Jesus Camp for the sake of exploring not just the subject matter at hand, or to see how this type of footage can be manipulated any way you like, but to question the nature of truth.

Varb For Me