This brave, thoughtful documentary tells the disturbing story of Becky Fischer, a self-styled children’s pastor who organises an annual Bible retreat with the intention of edging young Christians closer to God. Opening with scenes of children giddily proclaiming how much they love the Lord, it’s soon evident that ‘Jesus Camp’ is only superficially interested in the methods of the American religious right. Its key concerns are with the susceptibility of young minds and the enthusiasm of some institutions to influence and exploit them to disseminate their own agendas. By cleverly using the religious milieu as its thematic base, the film subtly deals with the ways that children process and accept information and the potentially dangerous influence of advertising and the media.
Causing a fair amount of controversy on its release Stateside, Fischer, somewhat unexpectedly, stood by her representation in the film, claiming that it proves how passionate children can be when given the chance. While the articulate mutterings of these young zealots do present a semi-respectable case for this model of conditioning, the more you hear Fischer’s calculated and slogan-filled vernacular, the more it feels like they’re parroting meaningless and emotionally detached drivel. It’s with these callous methods that Fischer unintentionally paints this outwardly benign institution as one based on ideals of hatred and aggression (the kids are often urged to ‘go to war on…’ or ‘rise up against…’ something), as opposed to love and acceptance. The film falters during its final scene as the outspoken, fanatical Fischer is pitched against a moderate Methodist talk-show host in a battle of wits redolent of Michael Moore and Charlton Heston.