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You’ve got a regular Christian on one side and a super-Christian on the other. At least that’s how it’s presented in Jesus Camp, a documentary focused on Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer and the Xtreme Conversion she practices on youngsters. A Methodist radio-show host challenges her fire-and-brimstone approach, saying it has nothing to do with Christ’s message of peace and love. In other words: There’s believing, and then there’s true God-fearing.
The latter impression comes first. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp begins with an alarming, warriorlike performance by staff-wielding kids in camouflage face paint. They dance to a menacing, Christian hard-rock song that’s prefaced by a chorus of young voices proclaiming, “Now is the time.” This is the entertainment at Fischer’s Children’s Prayer Conference, held in Lee’s Summit, Mo., where she will effuse over the dancers and shill her annual evangelical summer camp.
Fischer, part cheerleader, part zealot (she asks the Lord to bless everything from auditorium seats to her PowerPoint software before the camp), and, arguably, part brainwasher, later lets slip in an interview that kids are “so usable” in Christianity. She wants to make them as devoted to their faith as others are to Islam—“radically laying down their lives for the gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places because—excuse me—we have the truth!” And, by the way, the “truth” will help greatly to “take back America for Christ.”
Ewing and Grady, who also collaborated on 2005’s The Boys of Baraka, may include the comments of the aforementioned broadcaster to imply that even conservative Christians believe the fervor of fundamentalism is nuts. He’s identified as Mike Papantonio, host of a program called Ring of Fire. What the filmmakers don’t tell you is that Papantonio’s show runs on Air America, and that the famed trial lawyer is quite the liberal. His is the only dissenting voice—besides another caller and a producer nodding in the studio—in the unabashedly left-baiting doc.
No matter what your bent, his red-herring inclusion is an audience-insulting weakness in this otherwise riveting film, torpedoing the idea that the topic’s presentation is balanced. There are others, though. Ewing and Grady frame the film with news of Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation from the Supreme Court and conservative Samuel Alito’s appointment, emphasizing the direction America is heading. Besides Fischer, the focus is on only three children: Levi, 12, an aspiring preacher who was “saved” at 5 because he wanted more out of life; Rachael, 9, who tells strangers of God’s plan for them and wants to be a manicurist so she can “tell people about the Lord” while they’re relaxed and have let down their defenses; and Tory, 10, a dancer who couldn’t care less about Britney Spears—one thing to which both sides can be sympathetic—and is careful to boogie for God and not be aware of the flesh. Few adults make appearances, except for other ministers and a couple of parents, including the home-schooled Levi’s mom—who smugly tells him that global warming is “just not a big problem,” says creationism is the only possible answer to the question of mankind’s beginnings, and asks of his reading, “Did you get to the part yet that says science doesn’t prove anything?”
If the examples do mostly represent the big picture, however, Jesus Camp’s portrait is still a rather disturbing one. Kids speak in tongues and writhe on the floor. They’re shouted at about hypocrisy and the devil until they’re crying. (All accompanied by Michael Furjanic and Neill Sanford Livingston’s dramatic, ominous score.) Death is a big theme: Back in biblical times, Fischer says, Harry Potter would have been executed. And when she makes a sign about the ultimate punishment for sin, Fischer finds a font that is “dripping in blood” and cheerily pronounces, “There, that’s better!”
Fischer tells Papantonio that her message is not political, though she brings in a cardboard standee of the president to an assembly, and a little girl is shown weeping as she repeats, “Righteous government, God, righteous government!” But viewers, whether red or blue, who still believe in the separation of church and state will be most frightened by the comments of Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Haggard speaks to George W. every week and claims that his sect has enough growth “to essentially sway every election”—then adds, “It’s a fabulous life.”
Clearly, no members of the faith who participate here are concerned with the sin of pride. Throughout the movie, they bray about their influence but stop short at admitting that their enemy is not only Satan but also the L-word. Until the end of the film, that is, when Fischer is seen reviewing a video of one of her sermons and marveling that liberals “gotta be watching this and shaking in their boots.”
One is, for certain, but the erstwhile Stuart Smalley now considers himself smart enough to fight back. Al Franken: God Spoke follows the titular comedian-turned-politico from 2003, when his controversial anti-conservative book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, was published, to 2005, when he announced that in 2008 he may just run against Republican Norm Coleman for Minnesota’s senate seat.
Executive-produced by Don’t Look Back and The War Room director D.A. Pennebaker, God Spoke isn’t nearly as provoking as Jesus Camp. The documentary simply revisits recent history and, more wearying, has Franken and his cronies regurgitate the same arguments against the current administration that forehead-slapping liberals have been nearly asphyxiating over since the war began. For the blues, the movie will be depressing because its characters are angry but have thus proved impotent; for the reds, it’ll just boost their belief in the Bush mandate.
Excepting the heated exchange between Franken and Bill O’Reilly regarding O’Reilly’s inclusion in Lying Liars—“Shut up! You’ve had your 35 minutes….Shut up!” the Fox anchor bellows during a BookExpo panel—directors Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus weirdly portray Democrats and Republicans as good-natured opponents who joke around when they’re not in debate. Franken, who was sued by Fox News for using its allegedly trademarked catchphrase in his book’s title and is still referred to by O’Reilly as a “vile human being,” is seen being serious only a few times. There’s complete silence as he talks to the potential backers of Air America, on which he hosts The O’Franken Factor, about how vital it was to create a dedicated platform that would allow left-wingers to build a voice to rival such conservative mouthpieces as Rush Limbaugh. He screams at Michael Medved when the talk-show host pretty much backs up Franken’s message by admitting that an anti–John Kerry speech skewered some facts—but that it’s OK because “it’s all politics, Al.” And, of course, there’s Franken’s glum, how-could-this-happen expression when Kerry concedes.
But in person, Franken mostly approaches his opponents with the kind of just-joshing teasing more suitable for competitive best buds, even when he’s lecturing on his party’s behalf. Admittedly, a few laughs help statistics go down while explaining to a group of college students how a Brit Hume report is blatantly false. But a penis joke lobbed at an older, paying audience might not be the way to be taken seriously as a self-proclaimed fighter in “the battle for America itself.” The light tone is matched by a flitting narrative that jumps from Franken in his already politically minded Saturday Night Live days, to his appearance at a heavily Republican Newsweek party, to his hanging out at home, which serves to counter everything by suggesting he’s a real guy trying to make a difference. Ultimately, God Spoke—the title comes from an opening skit in which the Almighty tells Franken to write a book that points out that the media’s alleged liberal bias is “total bullshit”—feels like a clip show of Weekend Updates, only with more consistent humor. And amid all the funny, the more interesting story behind Franken’s compulsion to morph from comic to political contender is completely forgotten.CP