The documentary Jesus Camp offers a minimum of instruction in how to view its subject. The film is framed by a radio talk show host who appears in an early scene, in a few subsequent scenes, and at the end. He is apparently a former evangelical, and as he talks to callers on his radio show, he rails against the dangers of right-wing evangelical Christianity. His admonitions and comments are the only self-conscious hints this film offers about its point of view.
Of course, there are other more subtle clues: what the filmmakers choose to film, how they edit, and so on. But in general Jesus Camp is a remarkable example of a objectivity in documentary filmmaking.
Jesus Camp focuses on a few individuals and their lives as evangelicals. One of the primary figures is an ardent and in ways charming older woman who ministers to children. She runs the summer camp that gives this film its title. One of the children is a boy of perhaps 13 or 14 years. He has a closely cropped haircut except for a swath of hair that hangs down his back. He is bright, eager, open eyed, and wholly brainwashed. We see much of him in the film. The woman teaches the boy and his friends to speak in tongues, to praise Jesus, to convert unbelievers. The world of reason and rationality, where people think and develop their own ideas, is alien to this woman and her students. They are taught to believe what they are told, to have faith, never to question. They are taught that the world of reason is evil and that those who think for themselves, who have an open mind, are damned.
Jesus Camp doesn't show evangelical Christians as oppressed and unhappy. To the contrary, through much of the film we see them full of joy, enjoying their lives, celebrating their faith, expressing love for their savior and for one another. Only gradually, as the film progresses, does it become obvious that theirs is an existence of benighted ignorance and prejudice.
I expected this film to be funny. In fact there was little humor in it. One of the only moments of humor comes when a group of evangelical children approach several black men sitting in a park. The children have been taught how to speak with the unconverted, and they try their new skills out on these men. One of the children asks the men, "Where do you think you'll go when you die?" One of the men answers, "Heaven." The children are not prepared for this answer, which floors them, and they turn and leave, walking rapidly across the street away from the park. One of them exclaims, after a pause, "They must be Muslims."
A few scenes concern a mother who is homeschooling her children. The film notes that two-thirds of the children home schooled in America are evangelical Christians. Her bias against science, reason, and open thought as she speaks to the interviewer and to her son is chilling.
In another scene, the evangelical teacher talks to the radio show host about the dangers of democracy.
Democracy depends on an enlightened, educated, intelligent electorate. If the people about whom this film is made ever get the upper hand, democracy and reason will vanish. Jesus Camp is a frightening film.
Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Jesus Camp was produced and directed by a group of women filmmakers who have mastered the art of expressing a point of view by allowing their subject to speak for itself.