One of the most talked about films at the recent Tribeca Film Festival is the provocative new documentary about Evangelical Christians, “Jesus Camp.” Children’s pastor Becky Fischer became something of a lightning rod for many Tribeca festival audience members who watched one of the film’s five festival screenings during the recently completed event. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing‘s film, winner of a special jury prize for outstanding achievement in documentary, managed to maintain consistent buzz in a festival that hosted close to 300 titles, including high profile films such as “Mission Impossible III” and “Poseidon.” “Jesus Camp” steps into the right end of America’s cultural divide, profiling a group of Evangelical Christians who home school their children, evangelize on the streets, and use their considerable political clout to promote their conservative ideals. Unable to attend recent festival, Becky Fischer spoke with indieWIRE this week about the film and its recent New York City screenings.
Affable, determined and possessing a strong religious conviction, Fischer believes children possess a uniquely strong ability to serve God and has made it her life’s work to reach out to children to be activists for the Lord. Through Kids In Ministry International, she conducts conferences and operates a summer camp for children and teens designed to instill a deeper devotion to God and their brand of Evangelical Christianity, in addition to unleashing a call to activism.
Scenes of children proselytizing and learning about creationism in addition to a host of conservative principles engendered some unease amongst the generally liberal New York audiences during the Tribeca Film Festival, many of whom had questions for directors Grady and Ewing about Fischer who was unable to attend the festival. A screening in Manhattan’s East Village late last week, with even documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in attendance, reportedly became quite a raucous event as audience members reacted loudly to the film and Fischer, in particular.
“I’ve only seen [the film] one time, and I was still processing what was left out and left in. [But from] what I’ve seen, I think [Grady and Ewing] did a great job,” said Fischer. “I think they captured the beautiful concepts of what we represent.”
While generally pleased with how the film turned out, she told indieWIRE that she initially felt a bit uncomfortable with the inclusion of some of the overtly political segments in the film, which culminate in a debate between Fischer and Air America radio commentator Mike Papantonio (whose on-air comments are used to frame the documentary). Papantonio, described as an active Methodist, is a frequent critic of the Evangelical movement.
A particularly inflammatory scene that heightens the political overtones for viewers takes place at a revival meeting lead by Fischer and her associates, in front of well over 100 children. In the scene, Fischer takes a life-size standup photo of President George W. Bush to the stage, and with a large American flag in the background, asks the crowd to raise their hands towards him in prayer.
“I didn’t realize how the secular world viewed what we were doing,” Fischer said, adding that Grady and Ewing spent about a year filming her — including a visit to the Kids On Fire summer camp in Devil’s Lake, ND — explaining that political side of the equation had only come up toward the end of shooting.
“When we took out [an] image of Bush, it turned political, but to us, it’s not political – it’s Biblical,” she said.
“All you have to do is mention words like abortion, homosexuality and President Bush to [garner] strong feelings from people,” said Fischer who maintained that using images of the U.S. President and the flags of the U.S. and Israel were not meant to be overtly political. “We are commanded to pray for our leaders and we’re commanded [by the Bible] to pray for Israel. So it was a surprise to me because we don’t think of this as political. But from a secular point-of-view, I can see how it’s viewed politically.”
Becky Fischer and her fellow Evangelicals view Bush as a primary hope in pursuing their agenda regarding abortion rights, prayer in school, and gay rights, and the film captures the emotional devotion instilled within a new young generation of Evangelicals. At the film’s world premiere on the first weekend of the festival, many in the mostly liberal New York audience could be overheard saying that the film should be a call to arms for people on the left side of the cultural/political divide.
As for the filmmakers themselves, Fischer said she felt a duty to shield Grady and Ewing from her fellow Evangelicals who might have been tempted to witness to them during the making of the movie. She said that fellow believers had come to her privately to inquire about the filmmaker’s own religious beliefs, but while Fischer and the filmmakers discussed religion, she added, “There wasn’t a conscious effort to make them feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t why they were here. I know that Evangelicals can do that, but I didn’t [want them to feel uncomfortable].”
After shooting wrapped, Fischer said that Grady and Ewing shared their beliefs with her, and any disagreements that might exist have not compromised the film. “Rachel and Heidi have said their personal beliefs have nothing to do with the film. I think they did an extremely good job in not letting their personal beliefs interfere with the making of this film.”
Beyond the ideological and the political, Fischer hopes the film will have an empowering effect on the role of children in spiritual life and also wake adults in the movement up to their voices and potential. “Kids have been sidelined within the Christian circle. I hope that the Christian community will know how children can be powerhouses in spiritual things.”
In what may come as some surprise to more than a few Tribeca viewers of “Jesus Camp,” Fischer indicated that religion is not necessarily automatically accepted by today’s young. “We have kids leaving the church in droves because they find it boring. We want to give the kids more mature spiritual food.”
During the half-hour phone telephone conversation, Fischer said she hoped to clear up what she considered have been misrepresentations by media outlets, including indieWIRE, about her efforts with the “Kids on Fire” camp (now called “Families on Fire.”), during the time period captured in the film.
“I read in several reviews that I’m trying to raise the next Billy Graham and that’s not true. I’m trying to raise kids who have a strong faith in their God and know why they believe it.”