“Jesus Camp” follows three children who attend Becky Fischer’s charismatic “Kids on Fire” camp in North Dakota. What began as a documentary on devout children eventually morphed into a provocative project on how the church approaches issues many see as helplessly politicized.
That’s how ordained minister Becky Fischer feels about a new documentary that examines her children’s ministry—and touches on just about every hot-button issue for American evangelicals.
“Jesus Camp,” by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of Loki Films, follows three children who attend Fischer’s charismatic “Kids on Fire” camp in North Dakota. What began as a documentary on devout children eventually morphed into a provocative project on how the church approaches issues many see as helplessly politicized.
Beginning the Documentary
Ewing and Grady, who co-founded Loki Films in 2001, had produced the acclaimed “Boys of Baraka,” about inner-city kids who leave Baltimore to attend an experimental school in Kenya. One of the boys in the documentary was an aspiring preacher, and Ewing and Grady found the topic of children and spirituality so interesting they decided to consider it as a follow-up project.
“We ran across Becky Fischer and her ministry,” said Ewing, referring to Kids in Ministry International, which the passionate and energetic Fischer founded and directs.
“They called us over a year ago,” Fischer told EthicsDaily.com. “They called me and began asking questions, and I asked them a few questions.”
“Anytime anybody approaches you on a documentary film level,” said Fischer, “your first thought goes to ’60 Minutes’ or ’20/20’—those shows where they rip you apart.”
Fischer watched “Boys of Baraka,” which she called “fascinating,” and after some discussion was convinced the documentary was the right thing to do. Fischer also says she received a prophecy several years prior to the filmmakers’ call, in which she was told she would appear in national media talking about children and the supernatural.
Fischer talked with the children and parents that would potentially be involved in the shooting process, letting them know what might happen. “If you feel a red light in your spirit, if you feel something that’s not on the up and up, if something doesn’t sit well with you in your spirit, please let me know immediately,” she told them. All went well.
“I always took them to be very open,” said Fischer of Ewing and Grady. “I never got the feeling that they were trying to fish for anything. They were very cordial, very friendly—very open conversations.”
Politics and Religion
Ewing and Grady, with backing from A&E Indie Films, shot the documentary on digital video from June 2005 to February 2006, editing as they went along. After the piece came together in raw form, however, Ewing said it had “a flatness” to it.
However, “While we were shooting,” said Ewing, “President Bush had the opportunity to put two new justices on the court.”
Said Grady: “Sometimes the film tells you where you’re going. Life unfolds and doesn’t care what your theory is.”
Enter the decision to highlight the relationship between politics and religion.
“It started to take a very political turn,” said Ewing, noting that not only were Supreme Court nominees in the news every day, but so were creationism and intelligent design. So was abortion. So was global warming.
These issues were also finding their way into conversations and gatherings among the children, their families, the church.
“What was happening in our country as we were making this film seemed very relevant,” said Grady. “It just seemed like a very organic direction to go in.”
So they did.
The filmmakers incorporated well-known lawyer and radio talk-show host Mike Papantonio as a counterpoint to some of the activities presented in the documentary.
Papantonio, an active Methodist, beats the drum of separation of church and state and speaks often on the topic—on his show, and in the film. The filmmakers repeatedly cut from “politicized” activities at the church to Papantonio bemoaning the crumbling wall of church-state separation.
“We wanted the voice of dissent to be a Christian, not an atheist from New York,” said Ewing. The crew traveled to Pensacola, Fla., where Papantonio produces his show, and gathered slick and provocative footage.
“He seemed to have the perfect voice of dissent for the movie,” said Ewing. And near film’s end, after Papantonio has dialogued with a variety of callers to his show, he and Fischer speak one-on-one over the phone in a showdown of worldviews.
Fischer hadn’t seen the final cut when she spoke with EthicsDaily.com earlier this week, but an earlier cut she previewed with the filmmakers left her “in a fog,” she said.
“During the making of the film, at no time did they ever indicate they were looking for anything on a political thing. That never came up,” said Fischer. “You couldn’t have pulled anything out of a hat that was more obscure from our point of view.”
Fischer said she assumed the film would focus on the children and their spirituality, though she knew the filmmakers were searching for the right storyline.
When filming was essentially complete, she said, Ewing and Grady asked her to consider phoning Papantonio’s “Ring of Fire” radio show. Doing so could help solidify opposing points of view and bring even the conflict between various Christians into sharper relief.
“That was the first time I had any clue this was taking a turn in the political,” said Fischer, “but even then I had no idea of the extent.”
Fischer said when she viewed the raw cut, “I couldn’t even enjoy it because I just kept thinking, ‘What just happened here?'”
Church and State
Fischer doesn’t like talking politics, saying it’s not really what she’s interested in. But press her on the issue of church-state separation, and she finally lets go.
“It’s bogus,” she says, “something that has been drummed up in the secular community.”
She also called it “a rewrite of history,” adding that “the whole reason that America was founded in the first place had to do with religious freedom.” Questioning the place of an American flag in church or forbidding children to wear Christian shirts at school is “so ridiculous it boggles my mind,” she said.
In one scene in the documentary, boys wear camouflage in what appears to be a rather militaristic performance. In another scene, children in church chant for righteous judges. In another, they’re lectured about abortion. In another, a home-school lesson concludes that global warming is “not really a big problem.”
Scenes like that are already being criticized in various forums on the Internet. Fischer defends her community, while bemoaning the possibility that audiences will focus on the documentary’s political highlights.
“At least in the liberal community, that’s all they’re going to see,” she says. But “something is happening to the children you’re seeing in that film. What is that?”
Some critics allege that Fischer wields some sort of power or control over the children, manipulating their emotions, which are indeed on display throughout the film. Fischer rejects such criticism.
“Those children are responding to the presence and the power of God that is alive in those services,” she says.
And keep in mind the name of the camp: Kids on Fire. Fischer says her kids, approach and results are special—so special they’re not really representative of Christian culture in America right now.
“The irony of this film is, we’re being painted like this is going on across the board in the evangelical community,” said Fischer, “but we’re the anomaly.”
Pressure on the Audience
“We really tried to show a balanced, accurate portrait of the people in our movie,” said Ewing. “We like the people in our film.”
That feeling is mutual. Fischer is currently doing a media blitz with Ewing and Grady, attending screenings in various states and talking with audiences.
“I consider them dear friends,” said Fischer. “I’m not mad at them. These people do this for a living. They were trying to find something that was going to be provocative and draw an audience, and they found it.”
“Everyone has an opinion about religion,” said Ewing. “You can’t really stay on the outside and peer in on this one. It puts a lot of pressure on the audience.”
Those potential audiences are already feeling the pressure, and Fischer’s e-mail inbox may be a good barometer.
She hears from “the secular world” that’s aghast at the combination of religion and politics (though Fischer doesn’t see it that way), and she hears from evangelicals, some of whom think “Hollywood” is trying to drag Christianity through the mud again.
“This thing is pushing more buttons than the filmmakers, or even I, ever dreamed,” said Fischer. “This is an explosive issue. And it’s explosive on both sides of the aisle.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.