Two Movies, No Points of View
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 04:01:06 AM EST
Two films about different aspects of the religious right are on their way to reaching the general public. Both sound like interesting and important films that have taken unusual and similarly difficult approaches. They have sought to make films without a point of view.  In the case of Jesus Camp, the film was immediately, fairly or not, accused of demonizing evangelicals. Lake of Fire, which took 15 years to make, has been praised so far for accomplishing what it set out to do -- to present both sides of the abortion struggle in the U.S. clearly and fairly.  
Tony Kaye, best known for the remarkable film American History X, spent 15 years, on and off, making a film about abortion. The result, Lake of Fire, premiered recently at the Toronto Film Festival. When he interviewed me for the film seven or eight years ago, he told me he was self-financing it by making commercials and music videos. I hadn't heard anything about it since, and wrongly assumed that it would never be finished. News reports from the Toronto flim festival say it is getting rave reviews despite its being two and a half hours long. I remember people being very suspicious about Kaye's motives, given that journalists and film makers with an agenda will always say that they don't. And sometimes, journalists and filmmakers, even with the best of intentions, harbor views that they are not even entirely aware of that emerge in their work. But I believe Kaye was sincere in his effort to really understand and present how this issue plays in our culture, despite the remarkable challenges of doing so. I look forward to the results. Asked now about how he personally feels about the issue, he says he is "confused."  I believe him. Reviewers say that he has presented various sides of the controversy with clarity and fairness.  It will be interesting to hear what those closer to the issue have to say.  

Jesus Camp is a documentary that claims not to have a point of view, but is merely presenting the subject matter as it is.  This was undoubtedly a challenge given the wildly controversial nature of the subject matter -- a Pentecostal children's camp in North Dakota where the children wear fatigues and are trained to be in God's army. People were bound to cry foul, and they did.  Ted Haggard, the camp director and the director of an assocation of Christian camps have denounced the film as biased in various ways. Interstingly, although some do not like the way the film was done, no one has said that it is in anyway inaccurate.

Here are a few exceprts from articles about the films.

The Miami Herald

The movie, which currently has no U.S. distributor, will probably have to be trimmed a bit to make it more commercially viable. But even at its current length, Lake of Fire is utterly engrossing and provocative, forcing you to consider the other side's stance, no matter which side of the fence you happen to be on.

The movie gives equal time to both pro-life and pro-choice groups; recounts the shootings and bombings that have taken place at various abortion clinics since 1993; interviews Norma McCorvey (a.k.a. the original "Jane Roe") about her conversion to Christianity and her subsequent anti-abortion stance; and uses interviews with respected authors and commentators (including Noam Chomsky, Nat Hentoff and Frederick Clarkson) to put the abortion debate into a political context and show how it reflects American's current ideological climate.

Kaye also does two daring things in the movie: He follows a 28 year-old woman through her abortion procedure, providing an up-close and personal account of her psychological and emotional turmoil. Kaye also includes in extremely graphic and disturbing images of aborted fetuses, knowing that the sheer power of those images alone express things no amount of pro-life rhetoric could ever hope to express. What's best about Lake of Fire is that it doesn't set out to change anyone's mind, pro or con: It just hopes to raise the level of the debate by giving viewers as much information as possible, as experienced by those - both extremists and not - who are in the thick of the battle.

Christianity Today

Shot in black and white, the film includes interviews with people holding radically different positions, including evangelical Christians, college professors, and activists from both camps. Kaye also speaks with doctors and nurses who have been threatened or harmed due to their involvement with abortion clinics.

No broad release date has yet been announced, but the film has been heralded by critics as a "historic" achievement.

Ethics Daily  

"Jesus Camp," by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of  Loki Films, will catch its audience with two hooks. The first is an intensely personal look at charismatic children "hooking up with the Holy Spirit" (as Fischer calls their speaking in tongues and other emotional behavior). They study, pray and preach with an uncommon fervor.

The second hook is the filmmakers' narrative framework involving politics and religion. The children in "Jesus Camp" don't just speak in tongues and talk about getting right with God. They also wear camouflage for church performances, chant for righteous judges, demonstrate against abortion, and talk about why global warming isn't really a problem....  They opted for both hooks and brought the politico-religious element to the forefront by incorporating Mike Papantonio, renowned lawyer and radio talk-show host on Air America. Papantonio, a devout Methodist, is cut to repeatedly, talking on air about "this entanglement of politics with religion."

So it goes, with Fischer and company motivating children to "take back America for Christ," and Papantonio arguing that evangelicals are whittling away at church-state separation....

"Jesus Camp" is shot through with the American flag and sprinkled with Bush imagery--notably, a life-size cut out that is brought into church so he/it can be prayed over. "He has surrounded himself with spirit-filled people," says the woman in charge of the cardboard Bush...

The first part, of course, sets up the big issues and personalities, while the last part really reinforces the mix of religion and politics--though it must be said Fischer and company don't see their activities as "political" at all.

The Denver Post  

The directors of "Jesus Camp," a buzz-generating documentary about evangelical Christian children training to be soldiers for God, proclaim no agenda other than to start a conversation about belief, politics and the culture wars.

But the most prominent evangelical to appear in the film, the Rev. Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, has disowned it on the eve of its limited release, saying the filmmakers cast their subjects in a sinister light and misrepresented evangelicalism.

It's a blow to New York-based directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, a lapsed Catholic and a Jew who hope big- city secular liberals and heartland evangelicals will find something to like... Haggard was upset with his cameo, in which he jokingly says "repent" to the camera and declares that evangelicals determine elections when they vote.

In an e-mail, he called the film yellow journalism, with "a strong agenda like any Michael Moore film with the cinematography of 'The Blair Witch Project."'

"Jesus Camp" shows children in camouflage and prayers about spiritual warfare, militarist imagery that Haggard said most Christian groups stopped using after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"It does represent a small portion of the charismatic movement, but I think it demonizes it," said Haggard, a charismatic Christian who does not usually speak in tongues from the pulpit. "Secularists are hoping that evangelical Christians and radicalized Muslims are essentially the same, which is why they will love this film."

Bob Kobielush, president of the Colorado Springs-based Christian Camp and Conference Association, said "Jesus Camp" distorts the typical Christian camp experience by emphasizing the political and showing little of the outdoors.

At a prayer conference, children enter a covenant with God to end abortion and chant "Righteous judges!" It was more of an over-the- top representation that seemed to coerce kids," he said.

Ewing said viewers are smart enough to recognize that not all Christian camps are like Fischer's. And the filmmakers claim no message, letting their subjects speak for themselves. Six minutes of footage of a liberal Christian-radio talk-show host provide a counterpoint.

And they will be discussed perhaps as much for their point of view, or lack of it, as the content.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 04:05:55 AM EST

"Jesus Camp" shows children in camouflage and prayers about spiritual warfare, militarist imagery that Haggard said most Christian groups stopped using after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

I guess Haggard has missed his local Battle Cry youth rally

by JerrySloan on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 03:40:23 PM EST

the militarism of various sectors of the evangelical community, in style, substance or both, is an important and inadequately explored area -- and obviously a sensitive matter, as Haggard's reaction suggests.

Unfortunately, most of what response there has been to this stuff, has been exaggeration and overheated rhetoric.  

Jesus Camp may provide an opening to talk about it all in a more considered way.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 03:50:22 PM EST

I'm not surprised "Jesus Camp" is being condemned by the "spiritual warfare" crowd--it's being condemned largely because it is literally showing the "inside" face that they so desperately do not want to get out to the public at large (because the public at large will, quite frankly, see them for the very real threat they are!).

They are likely going to scream about this as much as a realistic, nonpartisan look at Scientology is screamed about by Scientologists--because any honest appraisal of such groups is going to involve, quite frankly, their horiffically coercive tactics that in some ways are identical to those used by Scientologists, will involve the fact they have literally declared war on the rest of humanity, will involve the fact that they are coaching kids literally from the cradle as "God Warriors" in their planned war against the rest of humanity, will involve showing the extent that this "spiritual warfare" meme is pushed, will involve the fact that this has already led to domestic terrorism, will involve the fact that they consider the literal cursing of people in the name of Christ as perfectly acceptable behaviour in their goals, will involve the fact that this is stuff likely to cause lifelong damage in being able to get along with people, and will involve the fact that this is part of the very core theology of these groups which has been promoted for over fifty years.

(Hell, I'm not shocked at all New Life is condemning it--as it turns out, they've got close links to one of the guys who invented the "spiritual warfare" toxicity in the first place and they're one of the worst offenders.)

As for "Jesus Camp", it's not showing anywhere near where I live, but to be honest I'm debating the wisdom of me seeing it.  I'm finding some of the discussion on the movie triggering, and the movie trailers highly triggering; this is in part because I'm a survivor of that very movement.  At the same time, I can now point to "Jesus Camp" and explain to folks that it's this sort of thing that I literally escaped from and survived (and am mad as hell about now and refusing to take it anymore).

Personally, I think it's about time such groups were exposed--and "Jesus Camp" apparently does it in a non-accusatory way, just showing it as it is.  (Which is probably what has Haggard and crew so riled up--pretty much the whole side of dominionism they want to hide badly is just "out there", for the whole world to see.)

It's about time someone exposed that stuff too.

by dogemperor on Wed Sep 20, 2006 at 04:45:02 PM EST

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