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in Filmmaking
on Sep 24, 2006

Over on the main page Annie Nocenti interviews the directors of Jesus Camp,, the incredibly fascinating documentary that opened this weekend from Magnolia Pictures. In the piece, co-director Heidi Ewing discusses Magnolia’s strategy to position the film as something of interest to both Christian evangelical audiences and godless hipsters in the big city:

Ewing: Eamonn wants to bring the film to Christian strongholds before it hits L.A. or New York. Colorado Springs, Kansas City — they get the movie first. Magnolia is withholding the film from the secular world for one or two weeks. The Evangelicals have time to embrace or reject the film on their own terms. New York’s not going to be mad that Springfield had it first, whereas it might matter to the Christians if they don’t see it first. If New York and L.A. have gotten the movie and are criticizing the Evangelicals, that’s going to put them on the defense, and they’re not going to go see the film.

The film did open in certain regional markets one week before New York, but is Magnolia’s strategy working? Are Christian audiences embracing the film?

Here’s Jeffrey Overstreet in Christianity Today who quotes both Magnolia’s Eammon Bowles as well as conservative critics of the film in a piece on just how the film is playing in the heartland:

Some Christian media personalities are speaking out against the movie, but for differing reasons. A few accuse the filmmakers of trying to discredit Fischer and her camp, and they rush to the defense of the film’s subjects, saying that their methods of worship and education are to be celebrated. Others are criticizing the film by saying that this documentary footage severely misrepresents Christianity, and that it has been framed to draw viewers into viewing Christians as lunatics….

An uncredited writer at MovieGuide calls it “a sarcastic documentary that paints evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, and politically concerned Christians as very shrill, warlike, and dangerous.” The same writer questions whether radio personality Mark Papantonio, who plays a prominent role in the film, and his callers are Christians at all. “Mark claims to be a Christian. Let us pray that he be filled with God’s Holy Spirit and be delivered from the evil demons that have made him so hateful toward the Christian leaders of America.” The article concludes by telling readers how to contact Magnolia Pictures with comments.

Even one of the film’s cast members is responding. Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, who makes a brief appearance near the end of the film, wrote a letter to all 42 NAE denominational leaders that read, in part: “I am concerned that we are seeing the initial attempts to characterize Evangelical practices as extreme and, in some cases, similar to the practices and beliefs of Islamic Fundamentalists. No doubt, we all need to learn to communicate the Gospel more clearly in our globalized world, realizing that our words can be interpreted very differently than intended because of the evolving global situation ….

“I didn’t like [Jesus Camp] for two reasons. (1) It portrayed the training of kids at the camp as militaristic, extreme, and scary and (2) It forces non-Charismatic evangelicals to say, “That’s not us, it’s them!” My concern is that the movie will reverse the growing respect that has been growing between Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal Evangelicals for the past three decades, and that those on the far left will use it to reinforce their most negative stereotypes of Christian believers. … It’s one more ‘documentary’ that seems to miss the point intentionally.”

Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles is surprised at the uproar. In a statement, Bowles says, “We’re frankly surprised and a little disheartened by the efforts of prominent members of the evangelical community to clamp down on Jesus Camp. Whether or not the children and camp depicted in the film represents the ‘mainstream’ of the Evangelical movement is beside the point: they exist, the film documents them, and the subjects feel they’ve been treated fairly. Why a community that’s so quick to attack discrimination from secular Americans would then turn and do the same to other Evangelicals is unexpected, to say the least.”

What do Christian film critics think of the film? So far, very few have published reviews.

Cliff Vaughn (EthicsDaily) doesn’t take sides on whether the film is fair or not, but he does recommend the movie. “Jesus Camp could be part of a provocative trilogy of similar documentaries that include The Education of Shelby Knox and Hell House. All peel back a layer of American Christianity and reveal a rawness that is simply worth watching and certainly worth discussing afterward. No matter where you stand politically or theologically, Jesus Camp has something to offer. You’re guaranteed not to leave indifferent.”

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