Friday, October 13, 2006

Jesus Camp (2006) and Soldiers in the Army of God (2000)

At Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, there is a summer bible camp called "Kids on Fire". Children's pastor Becky Fischer leads evangelically-minded children towards a better understanding of God's plan for them, and their duty to Him. This film, shot on a very small budget, follows some of these kids from home to camp to an anti-abortion protest in Washington. And it's extremely disturbing.

I'm always very careful when viewing (and reviewing) documentaries that reinforce my own beliefs. I try to remain suspicious of films where, for example, I go in thinking so-and-so's a nut and then the film portrays them as, well, a nut. So I was skeptical of some of the editing here, until I realized something: Becky Fischer has seen this footage. There is footage of her watching this very documentary--children speaking in tongues and admitting their sins and crying about aborted fetuses--with a huge grin on her face. She knows this is going to bother me, and she's happy about it.

In other words, it's possible to over-apologize for bias.

So I feel justified in saying that the treatment of children in this film sickens me. Over and over we are confronted with images of eight, nine, ten year old children being told not to think for themselves, to be obedient to God's (or, at a pinch, your pastor's) will, and to repent of their many sins. They are led in militaristic dances intended to arouse passion. They parrot rhetoric against "dead churches," the kind where you just sit and pray and don't raise your voice to God. They literally worship a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. They are shown eraser-sized replicas of babies, told that these represent the friends they never had because they were aborted, and submit to having red tape slapped over their mouths as a symbol of protest.

Eight. Nine. Ten years old. Ten year olds do not need to repent of their sins. Eight year old girls do not need to know about abortion. What's amazing about this film is the obvious intelligence and agency of these children and the use to which it's being put. Levi and Heather, especially, are fantastic kids. And they are being shaped, with very little subtlety, into the next generation of preachers and politicians. And while I believe that some of this indoctrination is done "for their own good" in their families' eyes, the film also betrays a sense of mercenary zeal to get these kids on the right side of what the adults think is a war. In the end, though, the movie answered very few of my questions and left me merely outraged and confused. What is behind it? What do they want? What is their reasoning, and how can Fischer place W on the dais and then protest that she is not pushing politics on her kids?

A good companion to this movie is Soldiers in the Army of God, an HBO documentary from 2000 (available on DVD) which follows several known religiously-motivated anti-abortionists in their activities and includes interviews with a convicted murderer of abortion providers. While I certainly came away with a perception of lots of crazy going on in the world, the people themselves were given ample time to explain their views, their actions, and their politics. I understand a lot more about their justification for their actions, and I feel that the radical anti-abortionists portrayed were treated fairly. For me, it was a window onto something I do not understand; much as I hoped Jesus Camp would be. I am by no means equating politically active religious folks with murders—but there are parallels in the films, and they are useful when viewed in conjunction. If you do see the DVD, I recommend reading the original Esquire article and watching the follow-up interview with O'Toole in the bonus features, as they shed even more light on the subject.

The question of religion in this country (the U.S.) is becoming increasingly fraught with complications. While it is doubtful that anything will make the two sides see eye to eye (one mother in Jesus Camp sees the world as "people who love Jesus and people who don't"), it is good to have unbiased filmmakers attempting to inform the public of the conflict's background.

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