“Jesus Camp,” the new documentary about three Missouri kids who travel to Pastor Becky Fischer‘s “Kids on Fire” evangelical summer camp, has been acquired by Magnolia Pictures for a September theatrical release that will target both conservative Christian and liberal doc audiences alike. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady‘s follow-up to “The Boys of Baraka” debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won a Special Documentary Jury Prize and went on to pick up the SilverDocs Sterling Award at SilverDocs last month. Produced by A&E IndieFilms, “Jesus Camp” offers a unique window into the North Dakota camp where young kids are actively trained, in the words of an announcement, “to become dedicated soldiers in ‘God’s army’.”
“When so many supposedly journalistic documentaries can’t resist the urge to editorialize, it’s refreshing to see a pair of filmmakers tackle this hot button subject with such a respect for their subject matter and the people involved,” said Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles, in a statement today. “‘Jesus Camp’ is sure to be intensely fascinating and thought-provoking to people on all sides of this issue.”
Magnolia intends to specifically court both Evangelical Pentecostals and the more traditionally liberal audiences that tend to embrace documentaries. A mid-September debut in New York City, as well as Kansas City and Colorado Springs, is in the works. In a conversation with indieWIRE today, Bowles explained that he has decided to pull the doc from next week’s scheduled screening at Michael Moore‘s Traverse City Film Festival so as not to taint the perception of the film in the run up to the release. Moore saw the film at the Tribeca Film Festival and praised it in a subsequent conversation with indieWIRE, but Bowles reiterated that he doesn’t want to send the wrong message by showing the movie at Moore’s event.
“We are not going to stack the deck. We want people to make up their own minds,” Bowles said, explaining that when marketing the movie he will be true to its balanced approach and maintain an unbiased approach. “I have no problem with Michael Moore, its just that (he) is such a polarizing figure and I don’t want to turn off a certain segment of the audience that is going to like the film and find it interesting.”
As indieWIRE’s doc columnist Jonny Leahan noted in an article about the film prior to its Tribeca fest world premiere, “The camp becomes almost a side issue here, as a much larger picture is painted in ‘Jesus Camp’ – one about the role of religion in American politics, specifically the fight of the Christian conservatives to win the hearts and minds of the next generation as they prepare to be the governors and senators of tomorrow. It begs the question: what, if anything, are the liberals doing to pass on their values to children in an organized and effective way?”
Magnolia’s Bowles and head of acquisitions Tom Quinn, along with head of business and legal affairs Jason Janego negotiated the deal with John Sloss of Cinetic Media and Molly Thompson from A&E IndieFilms.
“[The Christian right] feel empowered right now and they gave us a lot of access – more than had we done [the film] some years earlier,” explained co-director Heidi Ewing, following the film’s first screening at the Tribeca Film Festival back in April. She added that while Pastor Fischer was unable to attend the Tribeca fest, she has been supportive of the project.
“I think they captured the beautiful concepts of what we represent,” Fischer told indieWIRE in a subsequent interview. And when asked about a particularly inflammatory scene that involves a life-size standup photo of President George W. Bush and a large American flag in the background — with the crowd raising their hands towards the Bush effigy in prayer — she added, “I didn’t realize how the secular world viewed what we were doing…When we took out [an] image of Bush, it turned political, but to us, it’s not political – it’s Biblical.”
“What I think is admirable is the way (“Jesus Camp”) walks the line,” Bowles concluded, during today’s conversation with indieWIRE. “It doesn’t make up your mind for you.”
ABOUT THE WRITER: Eugene Hernandez is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of indieWIRE.