"We were interested in exploring children and faith," explained Rachel Grady, co-director of "Jesus Camp," a documentary about a summer program at which evangelical children are taught to "take back America for Christ." Grady and co-director Heidi Ewing, her partner at New York-based Loki Films, became intrigued with the subject while making their last documentary, "The Boys of Baraka," which featured a 12-year-old boy who had already found his "calling" in preaching.
"Jesus Camp" focuses on the "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devil's Lake, N.D., where founder the Rev. Becky Fischer and her colleagues teach children to become, in their words, "dedicated Christian soldiers in God's army." Fischer, who is also director of Kids in Ministry International, sees children as an "untapped resource" in the evangelical movement's on-going effort to reshape this nation's spiritual and political character.
The congregants granted Ewing and Grady unfettered access to their lives. While the film revolves primarily around three youngsters -- Levi, 12; Rachael, 9, and Tory, 10 (Grady notes the preponderance of Old Testament names among the kids) -- hundreds of children are shown participating in church activities, which include everything from water balloon games to anti-abortion revival meetings.
Winner of the Sterling Feature Grand Jury Award at the 2006 AFI/Discovery Silver Docs Festival and cited as Outstanding Achievement in Documentary at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, "Jesus Camp" includes footage of young children "warring in the spirit," in the words of Fischer. The youngsters cry, call out, speak in tongues and fall to the ground shaking uncontrollably in what can be construed as either religious passion or a dangerous case of mass hysteria.
Paradoxically, the film stands to attract both Christian conservatives and secular political liberals. One group sees a positive depiction of their faith; the other sees an alarming portrait of the Christian right and a stern warning about the dangers it poses. Already, the film has stirred up as much controversy as praise.
Grady insisted that she and Ewing tried to avoid anything that could be construed as editorializing. "We wanted to offer a neutral point of view and let moviegoers make up their own minds."
"I hope the film feels relevant and important and worthwhile to everybody, not just those two particular groups," she added. "Faith plays an enormous role in [all] human experience."
Grady herself was raised in a secular Jewish household in Washington, D.C. She believes that the absence of a strict religious upbringing in her own life actually proved to be an asset on the project: "Had I been more religious, I think I would have been more close-minded."
The children knew that Grady was Jewish; one told her she was the first Jewish person he had ever met. They didn't ask her any questions about her faith, but they seemed to have positive feelings toward Jews.
"First, because Jesus was Jewish," theorized Grady, speaking by phone from her Manhattan office. "Secondly, because [according to] the Book of Revelation, the second coming of Jesus can't happen until the Jews have their homeland back. Basically, evangelicals are Zionists."
With a laugh, she added, "the kids thought it was funny that I knew so little about the New Testament."
She doesn't believe that either her religion or Ewing's presented any problem for the subjects of the film. "If anyone is critical of the film, it is based more on the fact that we live in an urban, Blue State environment and, therefore, must have pre-conceived opinions about what a Midwestern evangelical Christian would be like."
Grady stressed that she and Ewing did not set out to make a political film. "It was only once we started filming that we realized that from our perspective, this was also a political story," she said. "The [evangelicals we met] do not consider themselves political activists; rather, they see themselves as engaged in a spiritual war."
Partially because of that, making the film proved an eye-opener for Grady. "It shone a light on the bubble I was living in," she said. "All you need to do is to take a two-hour plane ride to [enter] a parallel universe. It doesn't feel like the America you're used to."
"And they vote," she added. "They are very engaged in their community and have utilized what our democracy offers."
Asked if she found it difficult to accept people whose life philosophy differed so radically from her own, Grady unhesitatingly replied, "Absolutely not. The big challenge for me, in all my work, is to find the humanity in the particular experience. And I think we succeeded here."
Jean Oppenheimer writes for American Cinematographer magazine, the New York Times Syndicate and the New Times Corp., as well as serving as a film critic on "Film Week" on KPCC-FM.