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click to enlarge At Jesus Camp, children play capture the flask with Mel - Gibson.
  • At Jesus Camp, children play capture the flask with Mel Gibson.

*Jesus Camp (PG-13)

Chapel Hills 15, Kimball's Twin Peak
Here's a test. See what happens to your heart rate and/or your eyebrow level as you contemplate the following scenes:

A car cruising down a midwestern American highway, the radio announcing the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and the president's search for a new justice. Evangelist Pat Robertson urges his listeners to get involved in the nomination process, a huge opportunity "to reclaim America for Christ."

Becky Fischer, head of the Children's Prayer Conference at Lee's Summit, Mo., congratulates young, camouflage-faced thespians who have just completed an anthem of the biblical end times. She explains to parents why ministering to children is her life's mission: "They are so open, so usable in Christianity. One-third of the world's population. I want to see them radically laying down their lives for Christ ... because, excuse, me, but we have the Truth."

A tidy suburban home. Inside, a wall plaque reads, "Home Sweet Class Room." Today's subject is global warming. Young Levi, 12, a handsome, young Ralph Macchio look-alike with an extreme mullet, is examined by his mother. "Global warming is not really a big problem, is it?" she urges, and he shakes his head no. "But it is a big political issue." He nods. Washing dishes later, she turns to the camera: "If you look at creationism, you realize it's the only possible answer to all the questions."

These are mere snippets of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's documentary Jesus Camp, winner of a Special Jury Prize at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. With near-complete access to their subjects, the filmmakers follow Fischer, Levi and two young girls, Rachael, 9, and Tory, 10, from their homes to "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devil's Lake, N.D., where they spend a week training to be soldiers in the Army of God.

"The devil goes after the young," Fischer tells a scared-looking, wide-eyed audience, "those who can't fend for themselves. That's why we're trying to protect you."

Later, we see Fischer creating her audio-visual aids for her next sermon, computer-generated banners that read "SIN" and "DEATH." She manipulates the font to simulate the letters dripping in blood. "There, that's better," she says.

Grady and Ewing offer no exposition or narrative voiceover, and we never hear their disembodied voices urging their subjects on. This transparency is interrupted only once in the film, near its end, when they visit Colorado Springs' New Life Church and Pastor Ted Haggard plays antagonistically with the camera, rushing toward it from the pulpit with questions and challenges. Levi, mesmerized, watches from the front row.

In a more relaxed interview, Haggard flashes his trademark grin: "If the evangelicals vote, we win the election. It's a fabulous life."

Jesus Camp explores American evangelical culture and the intersections of innocence and indoctrination, religion and politics. It offers no judgment on its subjects and that's why it works. Fischer, after watching the film, told indieWIRE.com that she thought the filmmakers did a great job "captur[ing] the beautiful concepts of what we represent." Devil-worshipping pagans, political liberals and their ilk will likely see it differently.

Kathryn Eastburn

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