Interview By: Andrea Tuccillo
Documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady channel their insatiable curiosity into their latest film, Jesus Camp. The film documents three children from Evangelical Christian families and their time spent at a North Dakota Evangelical summer camp called “Kids on Fire.” The children are deeply passionate about their faith to an almost extreme devotion, and the camp encourages them to become active members of America’s political future. Jesus Camp explores the ideas of faith and politics and in the process unearths a Christian-American subculture that begs to be discussed.
“We were looking for a film that would explore children faith,” says Grady. “We were not necessarily looking for a film about Evangelical Christians per se but really wanted to explore where faith comes from, how one person is faithful, why someone isn’t as devout as somebody else. We found Becky Fischer’s summer camp and found her ministry, befriended her, and decided that her ministry and her vision was a worthwhile film.”
The film portrays an extreme Christian view, but the filmmakers made sure to include outside views and opinions to create a well-rounded documentary.
“A film needs stakes, a film needs a little bit of compare and contrast and different opinions to drive different points home clearly,” says Ewing.
The voice of dissent came in the form of Mike Papantonio, an Air America radio host of a show called “Ring of Fire” who has also been a frequent critic of the fundamentalist movement.
“What was appealing about him was that he’s a Christian, he goes to church, he believes in Jesus, he knows the Bible, he’s a pretty devout Christianâ€”and we thought it was important that the voice of dissent was also a Christian so they’re all having the same conversation instead of an atheist from New York City. That would be absolutely irrelevant as a counter-point,” Ewing says.
It’s tough to make any film and check your biases at the door, but it was necessary for Ewing and Grady to do so in order to really open themselves up to the experience. The concept of the movie was foreign to them, as neither one grew up in a particularly devout household (Ewing was raised Catholic, Grady was raised Jewish), but after a year of spending time with their subjects they came to truly understand the camp’s mission.
“The bottom line is that whenever you’re making a film you’re being invited into someone’s most intimate and personal space and you just have the respect that,” says Grady. “You’re a visitor. You’re visiting their world and in this case we quickly became used to the more explosive things that people are shocked by such as the speaking in tongues, some of the more supernatural aspects of the Christian religion that these people practice and after that we had relationships with them. There was a human face, a human personality behind what they were doing and we just took it from there. We tried to mimic the journey that we were having for the audience.”
The audiences’ reaction to the film has been mixed, striking up debates even within the Evangelical community itself. The families in the film are all happy and comfortable with their portrayal, but some Evangelical Christians feel that the film did not portray them accurately enough or that more aspects should have been explained or included.
“It’s sort of ironic that a Jew and a Catholic have sparked a controversy in the Evangelical community but it’s happening,” says Grady. “As it stays in the theaters I’m hoping this kind of controversy continues because I think it’s good to spark this kind of conversation.”
Also sparking controversy is the film’s portrayal of the faith’s relationship to politics, especially its ties to the current administration. An alarming 40 second scene shows children at the camp praying in front of a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. (They are praying for their leader, not to himâ€”but the melding of their faith and politics is made strikingly clear.)
Still despite all the heated discussion and touchy subject matter, Ewing and Grady hope their film will shatter stereotypes and provoke new ways of thinking.
“The parents in our film are college educated, gainfully employed,” says Ewing. “These people are not hicks; they’re not living in Appalachia. These people are American citizens who are extremely evolved in their society and they have a lot to say and they are not ignorant. I think that there’s a perception by a lot of urban dwellers that Evangelicals are sort of out there or not important or maybe uneducated. And I think that’s not true. I think I know a lot more about United States than I did a year ago.”
And they are sincerely hoping that audiences learn something, as well.