Cranky’s Flickershow Reviews

By Neil Richter

True Believers


         Documentaries often aren’t very popular with the general public. It makes sense when you realize that they go against one of the main purposes of film as a medium: to offer escapism. Instead, documentaries (depending on the filmmaker) hold up a mirror to the world that we return to when we leave the theatre. Sometimes the results aren’t very pretty. The Academy Award nominated film Jesus Camp is a very apt example. This terrifying look at fundamentalist right-wingers is both eye opening and disturbing. Right off the bat I’d like to point out that this is an even-handed film. While the documentary’s subjects are radical evangelical and born-again Christians, Jesus Camp never descends into out and out Christian bashing. Instead, the film intersperses the main narrative with periodic commentary by a moderate Christian radio host who stresses the idea that many radical Christians are, in fact, not even representing their faith correctly. I feel that this is one of the films most important statements. Religion by itself isn’t the enemy here. When fundamentalist beliefs combine with government…that’s another story. Furthermore, one never gets the sense that tricky editing or any other subtleties are being used to pull audiences in one direction or another. The more radical subjects are, the more they skewer themselves without any outside help.

Speaking of radical subjects, it’s probably about time to talk about Becky Fischer, whom the film focuses on. Becky serves as pastor of an evangelical children’s ministry in Missouri, and also hosts a Christian summer camp in South Dakota. The crux of the film’s narrative follows both her and a number of children as they embark on their week at camp. The results are absolutely surreal. Becky is a force to be reckoned with. Her sermons to kids, some of them as young as toddlers, are intimidating in their fire and vitriol. At one point she drops everything in the middle of her preaching to announce that Harry Potter is a warlock and would have been put to death in the middle ages. Things get even weirder as the kids move to the camp. Becky accuses many of the children of being fakers and liars who don’t truly carry Christ in their hearts. She pours bottled water over their hands to cleanse them. The kids are encouraged to psyche themselves up into a spiritual frenzy, flailing wildly and speaking in tongues, the looks on their faces alternating between spiritual ecstasy and out and out terror. They are harangued over and over again, without one mention of Christ’s love, which I kind of assumed was an important part of the Christian faith in the first place.

         What’s more disturbing is the sense that these kids are being indoctrinated into something far larger than themselves. This particular branch of Christianity, whether you want to call it the far-right, the evangelicals, or the born-agains, stresses a language based on conflict and hate. These children aren’t worshipping, they’re being trained to become ‘soldiers of Christ’. When Becky and other members of her inner circle reference the kids, they have a tendency to describe them in words such as ‘resource’ and ‘usable’. One wouldn’t be far off-base at all to describe this process as brain-washing.

         The true tragedy of all this is brought home when the audience gets to know a few of these children. One in particular stands out for me. A 9-year-old girl named Rachael is introduced whose level of belief borders on the fanatical. Her speaking style is a frenzied, hyper-articulate runaway train that only stops every few minutes so she can gulp in more air. When we see this little girl on the street fervently trying to convert non-believers, or in the bowling alley praying over her ball every time she rolls it, one gets the sense that this girl is being given a life sentence rather than a faith. Her obvious intellect is squandered, since she has nothing to do besides parrot the opinions of people like Becky Fischer. She’ll never have a normal childhood. She’ll never be free to explore the world on her own terms. As one moderate Christian in the film says, if God gave us a brain he must have expected us to use it. The rigid, militaristic lifestyle dictated by the primary figures in Jesus Camp seems a direct affront to the tenets of Christianity itself.

         When one realizes that these are the people who are slowly gaining control of this country, the fear really sets in. Jesus Camp reminds us that this was a nation based on freedom, whether it be religious or otherwise. The right-wingers depicted in this film claim to love America, but are shown to have no regard for any nation except the one that they have created for themselves. This becomes undeniably clear when one family hoists a flag with a cross on it above the American stars and stripes and gives their own pledge of a allegiance to a ‘Christian Nation’. This is a scary, scary film, and an extremely important one.