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Kids Will Be Kids: Three New Docs Capture Very Different Summer Camp Experiences

By Indiewire | Indiewire April 25, 2006 at 8:27AM

With the Summer Solstice just two short months away, it's easy to begin daydreaming about trips to the beach, a getaway to a mountain cabin, or if you have kids, shipping them off to a summer camp. So it's apropos that three new documentaries about camps for kids have begun to emerge on the festival circuit, just in time for summer, although "Jesus Camp," "Camp Out," and "Summer Camp!" are vastly different experiences in both content and style.
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With the Summer Solstice just two short months away, it's easy to begin daydreaming about trips to the beach, a getaway to a mountain cabin, or if you have kids, shipping them off to a summer camp. So it's apropos that three new documentaries about camps for kids have begun to emerge on the festival circuit, just in time for summer, although "Jesus Camp," "Camp Out," and "Summer Camp!" are vastly different experiences in both content and style.

"Jesus Camp", which will have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, is a fascinating portrait of kids who are Evangelical Christians, and attend the "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota, which is designed to deepen their spiritual and earthly commitment to a particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady ("The Boys of Baraka"), the film is both engaging and anger-inducing at the same time, as camp leader Becky Fischer, a surprisingly affable figure, engrains in young children that homosexuality is evil, evolution is a false concept, and Bush is doing God's work - especially when it comes to appointing judges who will overturn abortion rights.

The doc plays with equal strength to both sides of the aisle, however, as the families' stories unfold, there's no apparent agenda from the filmmakers. Twelve-year-old Levi, who was "born-again" at five, is full of fire and brimstone and feels called to be a pastor. Nine-year-old Rachael witnesses to whomever will listen as she preaches about Jesus with an articulate manner more befitting of a woman in her thirties. It's hard not to gasp at times, seeing parents home-schooling their children in the political agenda of the religious right -- explaining, for example, that global warming is a non-issue, and the impressionable kids accept their bidding.

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?

One camp in Minnesota may be addressing this question as it works to provide Christian kids who happen to be gay a safe place to share, play, and explore their faith without judgment. The polar opposite of "Jesus Camp", Kirk Marcolina and Larry Grimaldi's "Camp Out," which had its world premiere last month at the Cleveland International Film Festival, tells the story of ten kids as they attend the first overnight Bible camp for gay and lesbian Christian youths. It will also screen at a number of upcoming fests, including the Minneapolis International Film Festival this month, and upcoming gay & lesbian festivals in Toronto, San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia. Already struggling with coming out at a difficult age, these kids are also faced with coming out as Christian, often finding themselves painfully isolated by both the gay community and their own religious community.

A scene from Kirk Marcolina and Larry Grimaldi's "Camp Out." Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

Given the controversial subject matter, the filmmakers were unsure of how people would react. "I assumed there would be people in both the gay and Christian communities who loved the film and those that hated it," Grimaldi told indieWIRE. "It's not a simple issue for either side, as there's a lot of anger and confusion out there... I am happy to report that the people who have seen the film, mostly in Middle America, have embraced it. One woman told me she called her 36-year-old son at midnight after the screening to tell him she loved him and to apologize for the weight he had on his shoulders during his youth. I'm hoping this is an indication that the tides are turning on issues of spirituality and sexual identity."

More mainstream, yet no less dramatic, are the traditional summer camps, like the Swift Nature Camp in Minong, Wisconsin, which is attended by cross-section of kids, aged six to fifteen. Swift Nature is the subject of "Summercamp!", a new documentary by Sarah Price ("The Yes Men", "American Movie") and Bradley Beesley ("Fearless Freaks"). In shooting the film, Price and Beesley immersed themselves in the full camp experience, living with about 90 kids while chronicling the intense emotions and deep bonds that often form during such an experience. The filmmakers focus particularly on several of the campers, experiencing the daily routine of camp activities: swimming, boating, hiking, evening skits, while simultaneously witnessing some of the pains and secret turmoil children and teens can undergo while growing up. The film was previewed at the True/False Film Festival and had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival last month. Co-director Beesley told indieWIRE that he and his colleagues involved with the movie are holding off on additional festival screenings, in favor of trying secure a fall fest berth.

As different as documentaries are from each other, the filmmakers had similar experiences while shooting at a summer camp. "The idea of shooting at a camp is ideal in many ways but difficult in others," says Grimaldi. "Shooting a documentary can be time consuming because you don't always know where your ending is and how or when it's going to come about, but when you shoot at a camp, there's a finite number of days in which the story takes places so there's a bit of a built-in format." That time constraint can also be a burden, since the story may not unfold the way the filmmakers had hoped, and they're left to work with whatever they captured on tape.

"You [had] better be following the story that's happening very carefully to make sure you have a beginning, middle and an end," says Grimaldi. "Time flies by very quickly and it's important to be pointing your camera in the right direction or you can miss something. Because of this, we shot around the clock and got very little sleep. We had to be up before the campers and went to sleep hours after they did in order to prepare for the next day. It can be exhausting. Besides providing a beautiful setting, the best thing about filming at a camp is that something transformational often happens when the participants arrive. They are more open and honest because they don't have outside distractions."

This article is related to: Documentary