"Jesus Camp," a documentary feature film that follows evangelical Christian children at a religious summer camp, won prizes and critical praise on the summer festival circuit, but it wasn't until its quiet opening in the Midwest two weeks ago that a news clip about the film hit YouTube.com, inciting a whirlwind of controversy.
Already, the movie, which opens in L.A. this week, has split the Christian community and horrified those who fear the ascendance of the religious right on the national stage. "Jesus Camp" opened Friday in New York and will open in 20 more cities nationally Oct. 6.
Bloggers of all stripes have been so disgusted by the bits of the film they have seen on the Web that the film's central subject, camp founder Pastor Becky Fischer, has become a public figure, bombarded with hateful e-mails and bracing for her media appearances next week, including a scheduled appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America." The A&E Indiefilms/Magnolia Pictures film follows Rachael, now 10, Levi, now 13, and Tory, now 11, engaging and articulate children from Midwestern towns who attend Fischer's "Kids on Fire" Bible camp in Devils Lake, N.D., in 2005. The filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, take a straightforward look at their subjects.
The film's cherub-faced children cheer when asked if they'd be willing to give up their lives for Jesus, pray over a cardboard cutout of President Bush and sob as they plead for an end to abortion. One is home-schooled by a mother who teaches that "science doesn't prove anything."
'This is war!'
At one point in the film, Fischer shouts to the children, "This is war! Are you part of it or not?" She proudly compares her work to the indoctrination of young boys by extremist Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere. The film intersperses footage of Fischer and the children with clips of radio talk-show host Mike Papantonio, a liberal Methodist, excoriating conservative Christians like Fischer.
Fischer is disappointed by the way she appears in the film. "I do understand they're out to tell a story and they felt they found it with some of the political things," she said by phone from her home in Bismarck, N.D. "And they're out to show the most dramatic, exotic, extreme things they found in my ministry, and I'm not ashamed of those things, but without context, it's really difficult to defend what you're seeing on the screen."
More controversy over the film erupted last week when the Rev. Ted Haggard -- whose constituency at the National Assn. of Evangelicals is 30 million strong -- took a public stance against it, claiming that the film makes evangelicals look "scary." His condemnation apparently chilled the film's opening in 13 theaters in Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri on Sept. 15.
Even before its release, lurid fascination with the film's trailer bloomed on the Internet. A Sept. 17 ABC News report on the movie turned up on YouTube.com shortly after it aired, and by the next day, the segment was the website's most-viewed clip, with about 200,000 downloads in a matter of hours.
When Fischer arrived home Tuesday after a few days touring with the filmmakers, her e-mail inbox was loaded with hate mail. She spent the next two days writing lengthy explanations to the most common accusations -- "How dare you brainwash those kids!" and "Are you raising up Christian terrorists or another Hitler Youth movement?" -- then posted them on her website Thursday.
"I've gotten thousands of hits on my website from those people," she said. "I'm wearing sunglasses in the airports. It's really making me nervous."
Haggard -- who appears in the film noting that when evangelicals vote, they determine an election -- acknowledged he "hated" the film and called it "propaganda" for the far left. He said the filmmakers take the charismatic, evangelical jargon too literally and portray the children's and Fischer's "war talk" as violent and extremist, when it's just allegorical.
"It doesn't mean we're going to establish a theocracy and force people to obey what they think is God's law," he said. "None of that's clarified in the movie."
Word about the film initially spread online after the Tribeca Film Festival screening in New York in April and then again in June, after former Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne saw it at the AFI/Discovery Silver Docs Film Festival in Washington, D.C., and mentioned it on his blog.
"I kept saying to myself, 'OK, these are the Christian version of the Madrassas (those Islamic religious instructional schools in Pakistan and elsewhere, often financed by Saudi oil money) ... so both sides are pretty much equally sick," he wrote.
It garnered even more attention in early August when Michael Moore refused to honor a request by Eamonn Bowles, the head of Magnolia Pictures, to cancel the film's screening at Moore's Traverse City Film Festival to avoid alienating conservative Christian audiences.