On Jesus Camp (and Who Do You Think You Are?)

On Jesus Camp (and Who Do You Think You Are?)

Lately, I’ve been looking forward to Friday nights — not because I have no lectures to write or papers to grade, but because I get to see a new episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Produced by Lisa Kudrow (yep, Friends‘ Phoebe Buffay), the documentary TV show features several celebrities as they go on quests into their family history. For instance, this season we’ve seen Lionel Richie locate his ancestors, one of whom was the result of a union between a slave and her master. We’ve also watched Kim Cattrall learn that her estranged grandfather was a bigamist and Rosie O’Donnell discover that her Irish ancestors barely survived a horrific poor house during the country’s potato famine. This coming Friday, I’m excited to watch Steve Buscemi uncover information about his past.

Earlier this week, I learned that the first season of Who Do You Think You Are?, which I’ve not seen (and until recently didn’t even know existed), came out on DVD. I love the show, but I’m not going to buy the DVD just so I can see Spike Lee, Matthew Broderick, and Kudrow make their genealogical quests. Other options were also shot down: I don’t think I own a Blockbuster card anymore, I don’t feel like waiting until the Toledo-Lucas library secures a copy, the show is not yet on-demand, and I don’t have a Netflix account.

Well, I didn’t have a Netflix account. But now I do. Yep, I signed up for a free month’s subscription just so I can order the first season of Who Do You Think You Are? Since I won’t get the disc until Monday, I might as well try out/stream some other movies. First up: Jesus Camp. Here are a few thoughts…

I’ll begin by saying that Jesus Camp is a solid example of direct-cinema. Unlike Religulous, another recent documentary that tackles the subject of religion, there is no intrusion from the (women) directors; the viewer never sees or hears them as s/he does Bill Maher, for instance. Because of this stylistic choice, Jesus Camp also positions itself as rather unbiased, which is, of course, virtually impossible for any documentary (or work of art, for that matter). Still, at times I did find its agenda ambiguous, even asking myself, is this for or against the separation of church and state, and do fundamentalist Christians heavily sway America’s politics, or is that just nonsense?

Other scenes, however, present a clearer message, specifically that fundamentalist Christians like Pastor Becky Fischer, Ted Haggard (looking back, an unfortunate subject choice), and parents of young Levi, Rachael, and Tory fill their/children’s minds with a very limited view of God, humanity, and the world — and that such mindsets are not particularly healthy. Fischer in particular looks ridiculous in several scenes. For example, in the opening of the film, she speaks before a large group of children and their parents, condemning non-churchgoers for being “fat and lazy.” However, as she preaches these words, the camera closes in, ironically revealing her obviously obese (i.e., “fat and lazy”) body. Additionally, the camp children, who range in ages from 6-12, also periodically come across as brainwashed, merely spouting out the doctrine of their parents and Fischer. Only one child — who (no coincidence?) gets very little screen time — questions God and the stories in the Bible.

Was I bored watching Jesus Camp? Not at all. Am I as amazed by it as film critics and those on the Academy board (it was nominated for Best Documentary, but lost to An Inconvenient Truth)? Eh, not so much. Still, it’s worth a look.