Monday, April 09, 2007

Documentaries to Revisit: Jesus Camp

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we wanted to revisit a few documentaries which reflect a variety of styles, but all share the power of effective story structure and character development. We decided this time to focus on JESUS CAMP by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. This 2006 film is now available on DVD and has been reviewed by Docs in Progress co-founder Erica Ginsberg.

At Docs in Progress workshops, one of the questions we ask every presenting filmmaker is “why did you make the film?” It is important that documentarians think about what their intentions are with a documentary. Especially when treating a controversial subject, it is essential for the filmmaker to know his or her own point of view even if he or she has no intention of being a character in the film.

In the 2006 film JESUS CAMP, filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady enter a world quite unlike the one they know firsthand. With both filmmakers hailing from “Blue States” (New York by way of Detroit and Washington DC respectively) and neither actively religious, they chose to enter the world of the Evangelical Christian movement and explore the relationship between religion and politics and the national debate over values.

That values debate forms a narrative device in the film. We open to the scenery of middle America (highways, fast food joints, gas stations, and motel signs reading “God Bless USA). A car radio blares the news that Sandra Day O’Connor has just announced her resignation from the Supreme Court. Talk radio goes wild with speculation about whom President Bush will nominate as her replacement and how much impact Christians can have on the nomination process. The camera takes us inside a radio station where extreme close-ups of the technical equipment underscore how media – especially talk radio – plays an integral part of that values debate. However, this radio host, Mike Papantonio, provides a dissenting voice to what we heard on the car radios. He is openly critical of what he calls the “religious right” because he believes they are entangling politics and religion. “What kind of lesson is that for our children?” Papantonio asks. Less than four minutes into the film, the main conflict of the film is established, even though we have not yet met any of the main characters.

This war of words acts as a backdrop for the main story, which looks at how the next generation of Evangelical Christians is being raised in their faith. Children with camouflage warpaint and carrying stick swords dance at the front of a church, speak in tongues (in keeping with their Pentecostal beliefs), and talk of being soldiers in the Army of God. They are led by an unlikely general, Becky Fischer. A children’s minister who challenges kids to be the part of this movement, Fischer has a down-to-earth style and disarming sense of humor which engages the viewer as much as it does the children to whom she preaches. In one scene she compares, almost enviously, her children’s ministry to that of radical Islamic madrassas. In another, she is teasing her hair in front of a mirror, betraying the more routine concerns of a middle-aged woman.

In fact, it is the juxtaposition of the humanity – and indeed the mundanity – of the characters with the idiosyncrasies of their religious beliefs that really gives depth to the film. On the surface, we are in the landscape of Anywhere Suburbia. But there is always a twist. A mom helps her children with their homework; they read from creationist textbooks which are central to their home-schooling. Children play videogames and read stories, but they are all Christian-themed; their homes are free of Pokemon and Harry Potter, both of which are seen as anti-Christian endorsements of witchcraft.

As the film progresses, we gain a deeper understanding of the characters, even if we do not share their beliefs. In addition to Fischer, the film focuses on three children. Levi has aspirations to be a preacher at a mega-church, seeing himself as part of a key generation to bring Jesus back to America. Rachael takes pride in her efforts to evangelize non-believers, whether it’s her next-door neighbor or a stranger at the bowling alley. Tory loves to dance, though she prefers Christian heavy metal to Britney Spears because she says it is for God and not for the flesh. The film masterfully reveals each of the kids through a combination of observational footage and interviews done in the mise-en-scene of the characters, often while they are engaged in their everyday activities.

While the first act of the film introduces us to the values debate and the main characters, the second act takes those characters and us to the Families on Fire Summer Camp, run in North Dakota by Becky Fischer. Again, we see the contrast of the normal rites of passage of a children’s summer camp with the deeper reasons why these children are there. In one scene, a group of boys stays up late for the familiar ritual of telling ghost stories, only to have the party broken up by one of the parental chaperones who reminds them that such stories are not honoring God. In the daytime, the kids have some time to be kids: play on swings, skip stones in the lake, laugh with friends in the cafeteria, or go exploring in a nearby cave. But they spend good portions of their days participating in the intense fervor of sermons that focus on washing away their sins of hypocrisy or breaking the reins of secularism over government. Fischer and the other pastors challenge the kids about whether they are ready to be a part of the Army of God.

This brings us to the third act which shows how the children are becoming part of this movement to use their religious values to influence politics. Whether it is blessing a cardboard cutout of President Bush or going on a field trip to Washington DC to protest against abortion in front of the Supreme Court, the children are ready to fight for what they perceive to be “one nation under God.” Levi even pays a visit to one of the largest megachurches in the country, the New Life Church in Colorado Springs which was at the time led by Pastor Ted Haggard (filmed before the sex scandal which forced him to resign). Haggard makes an appearance in the film and drives home the message that it is churches like his which have the power to influence the national political agenda. As he says in the film, “If the Evangelicals vote, they determine the election.”

JESUS CAMP met with praise and controversy when it was released in 2006. Some felt that it treated the topic in a sinister manner through its reliance on a spooky-sounding score and editing of sound bites that emphasize militancy and political activism espoused at the camp. Pastor Haggard spoke out against the film as not representing the full spectrum of evangelical Christians and encouraged members of his church to stay away from the film when it previewed in Colorado Springs. Although Becky Fischer has indicated on her Kids in Ministry website that the film is not a totally accurate representation of her ministry (especially the theatrical trailer which she felt portrayed her ministry as “cult-like”), she also believes the success of the film has given her a unique opportunity to convey her mission. She and several of the kids have attended various film festival screenings with the filmmakers and her ministry’s website contains many comments from viewers who felt the film actually encouraged them to become more fervent in their faith and eager to attend the camp. Similarly on the film’s MySpace page, the comments reflect a diversity of opinion – from those who have been inspired by the film to others who have found it deeply disturbing.

In my own opinion, if a film can take a controversial issue and be equally upsetting to both sides of a debate, then it is as close to balanced as it can ever be. But the one truth about non-fiction work, it is that it can never be truly balanced. Even John Grierson’s definition of documentary – “the creative treatment of actuality” – indicates that there is no way to portray truth, but only to creatively interpret it. Selecting the characters, deciding when to turn the camera on and off and where to focus its attention, choosing clips and contextual information and the order of how they are edited, and deciding on the music and where to place it in the film all reflect a point of view.

Even the presence of the filmmakers can impact the reality they document. While this was certainly noticeable in JESUS CAMP in the Ted Haggard sequence where the film includes shots of him teasing the cameraman, there is another sequence which many viewers may not even realize was impacted by the filmmakers. At one point, Becky Fischer calls in to Mike Papantonio’s radio show for a debate on whether her ministry is indoctrinating children in its religious and political beliefs. This is a key scene in the film because it returns us to the film’s major theme of the values debate by actually including a direct debate over values. However, according to the directors’ commentary on the DVD, Fischer’s call-in came about as a result of the filmmakers’ intervention, not as a chance happening in an unfolding documentary reality. While the call-in itself was not scripted, this sequence does present an ethical issue to the documentary filmmaker. What is his or her role in impacting a storyline in order to craft a more dramatic narrative arc?

I should add here that it was a controversial decision for Docs in Progress to feature this film among our reviews because my colleague, Adele Schmidt, and I have very divergent views on this film. We both agree that there is merit to seeing the film because it covers an issue about which almost every viewer may have a strong opinion. Additionally, it is a case study of how to tell a big-issue story through the more accessible lens of a character-driven narrative. However, we disagree vehemently on the issue of the film’s point of view. Every directorial decision ultimately reflects the point of view of the filmmaker(s). Filmmakers should never shy away from having a point of view, even when trying to present as balanced a story as possible. In my view, this film seems to have helped Ewing and Grady – and, by extension, viewers who come from similar secular backgrounds – to step outside of their own environment and discover more about people with whom they may never agree, but who they can now better understand. In Adele’s view, the filmmakers bent over too far backwards to please their subjects and betrayed their own point of view in the process. She does not equate discovering a reality with having a point of view.

We’ll leave it to you to see the film for yourself and decide. We invite you to add your own comments to the discussion.

© April 2007, Docs In Progress. Blogs and articles may not be reprinted without permission.

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