'Jesus Camp' docu stays off beaten path


"Jesus Camp," Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's new documentary about a God-fearing summer camp for evangelical children, will begin a platform release next Friday. But instead of taking the traditional path of launching the film in Los Angeles or New York -- cultivating the attention of national reviewers, and then slowly spreading out through the country -- Magnolia Pictures is taking the movie directly to the heartland.

"Camp" will make its bow in such towns as Grapevine, Texas; Kansas City and Springfield, Mo.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla. By choosing "a number of markets that have a strong Christian presence," Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles says of the decision to forgo the opinion-makers in Manhattan, "I want the film to be seen on a blank slate, without the national media weighing in and giving their piece." It won't bow in New York until Sept. 22 and will arrive in Los Angeles on Sept. 29.

Bowles -- who picked up the film after May's Tribeca Film Festival, where it was recognized with an award for special achievement in documentary -- readily acknowledges that "Camp" is something of a Rorschach test, winning over some viewers while angering others and probably even dividing Christians of different stripes.

The film grew out of Ewing and Grady's last effort, the acclaimed docu "The Boys of Baraka," in which they followed a group of inner-city Baltimore teens whose lives were transformed when they were accepted into a school in Baraka, Kenya. One of the boys, Devon Brown, aspired to become a preacher, and in researching schools for child preachers, the filmmakers stumbled upon a Web site belonging to Becky Fischer, a pastor who serves as director of Kids in Ministry International.

"We had heard her name from other pastors," Ewing recalls. "And as soon as I saw the visuals (on her Web site) and started reading, we knew we had to call her up."

The filmmakers were upfront from the start. "We explained we didn't have a deep knowledge of evangelical Christianity," says Ewing, who identifies as a lapsed Catholic, while Grady is Jewish. But after meeting the directors and viewing "Baraka," Fischer was receptive to their bringing their cameras to her camp. "I think she was surprised that the secular world would be interested in her at all," Ewing says. "We met the parents and the kids, and they said, 'Bring it on, we're proud of what we're doing.' Five years or so ago, they might have said no, but I think they feel empowered as a community because they have a friend in the White House and think they are making great strides in reshaping the culture."

The filmmakers consciously chose to present the images they found -- children, sometimes in tears, decrying the devil and committing themselves to Jesus -- with a minimum of editorial comment. However, they do set the film within the context of the battle over the Supreme Court and include commentaries with Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, a Christian who criticizes the religious right and debates Fischer in the film.

In August, there was a brief flap when Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival refused to cancel previously scheduled screenings of the film at Magnolia's request, since Magnolia was concerned that any association with Moore would brand the film as an attack on its politically conservative subjects. But that hasn't happened. Although some viewers will certainly see "Camp" as an expose of the religious right's efforts to convert a whole generation to its aims, Fischer herself has embraced the finished film. In fact, its arrival is heralded on Kids in Ministry's home page as "the big moment many of us have been waiting for."