Sweet Jesus Camp

This is a little girl named Rachael. She's 9. She spends much of her free time trying to save non-believers. Here, in a scene from Jesus Camp, she's protesting abortion in during a trip to Washington, D.C.

Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were in town today trying to rustle up some business for their new movie Jesus Camp, which is their the scariest documentary you've ever seen or the most inspiring--depending upon whether you're a secular liberal who thinks George W. Bush is the devil (hey, that's what Hugo Chavez called the president at the United Nations today) or a proselytizing Pentecostal, dig? A look at how children, some as young as 4 and 5, are being taught by Kids on Fire summer-camp owner Becky Fischer that global warming and evolution are liberal lies and that "democracy is designed to destroy itself" so that Jesus may reign on earth, Jesus Camp is one hell of a movie--among the year's best, if only because no one will see it without being engaged by it some way. Just show someone the clip during which kids pray in tongues to a cardboard cutout of Bush; red state, meet blue state, then beat each other purple.

But it seems Jesus Camp, which opened in Dallas on Friday, isn't faring well here--which is a big surprise, given that docs tend to make bank in Dallas. It's even more disappointing for Ewing and Grady, who made the critically adored The Boys of Baraka doc last year, since the movie's screening in Dallas at the Magnolia Theater and the film's being distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

"I don't know what's going on," Grady says. "I am not sure. I am surprised, I have to say, and I hope it turns around." She says she's been told Magnolia will give the movie "a few weeks" to find an audience here.

Part of the problem stems from the fact Magnolia chose to open the movie in Dallas--and Tulsa, Colorado Springs and Kansas City, among some other smaller markets not traditionally associated with art-house openings--before it made its bow in New York, where it opens on Friday, and Los Angeles, where it opens next week. That means Jesus Camp, which has had some national press but not a great deal, opened here without getting coverage from, oh, Good Morning America, which is running a story on the movie next week. But the filmmakers say Magnolia's president Eamonn Bowles, who picked up the movie for distribution at the Tribeca Film Festival in May, wanted to open the movie in smaller markets for a very specific reason.

"They thought it was worth exploring a strategy that gave the more Christian and conservative markets the opportunity to see the film and review the film and discuss the film before the more liberal and secular markets had an opportunity to put their stamp and their spin on it," Grady says. "They felt like, because the movie was very even-handed and neutral, often more conservative markets might shy away from films they feel have been co-opted by a secular or liberal press or constituency they don't feel comfortable. Eamonn thought it would give the film a fairer shot if it went to those markets before a more typical indie-house community."

Bowles likes to call the movie a "Rorschach test" for audience: If you're God-fearing, you will find the film and the kids and their instructors inspirational; if you're a lefty heathen (well, he doesn't put it quite like that), then you'll be scared witless. Grady and Ewing have been at screenings where people laugh at scenes that other audiences have wept at and shouted, "Amen! Amen!" It's two movies for the price of one, and perhaps the movie hasn't yet found its audience because neither side knows what to make of it--or doesn't have any interest in trying to understand the other side of the religious and political aisle. After all, how many of Jerry Falwell's kids saw Fahrenheit 9/11 or An Inconvenient Truth? And how many Democrats fans are feeling Left Behind?

"There's a lack of understanding, a lack of perspective, on both sides of the fence," Grady says. "It's a little arrogant and ignorant from both parties. I just feel like, why is this crowd laughing? Who's the boss right now? Why is this funny? There are scenes that elicit shocked hisses, and at that same moment in another theater someone's clapping. It happens where Becky tells kids whether they should read Harry Potter books or see the movies." Fischer, in fact, warns the children that were Potter a character in the Bible, he would have been put to death for being "a warlock." She's no fan.

"In downtown Manhattan, people think it's hilarious and ludicrous. We were in a screening in Springfield, and many people in the audience clapped when she said it and said, 'Amen, amen.' We really are living in parallel Americas, it seems like, but we share a government with the two Americas, we share a culture, and we have to at some point embrace each other in some way or at least understand each other." --Robert Wilonsky

Bonus Video: The Jesus Camp trailer

Bonus Bonus Video: A clip from Jesus Camp


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