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NEW YORK — In the name of their work, independent filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have spent most of the last few years surrounded by kids. The documentaries they produce, however, are anything but G-rated fluff. First was 2005’s critically acclaimed “Boys From Baraka,” about embattled inner-city Baltimore boys who head to Baraka, Kenya, for junior high. Now there’s “Jesus Camp,” which follows young evangelical Christians in America’s heartland over the course of a year.
The co-directors focused their lenses on Kids in Ministry, an intensely religious summer camp in tiny Devil’s Lake, N.D., that “trains children to raise the dead, heal and prophesize,” explains Grady, who founded Loki Films with Ewing in 2001. They were granted extensive access to the camp by its founder, Pastor Becky Fisher, and discovered an entire congregation of fervently devoted children. For an urban, secular audience, the footage exposes an unknown universe.
“We lead completely different lives,” says Ewing. “They were living a parallel existence to the America that we knew.” With their all-woman crew, the two entered the homes of their protagonists, 12-year-old Levi, 9-year-old Rachael and 11-year-old Tory, who are all home-schooled in their rural Missouri communities. “It’s a really different worldview. That was wild for us,” she says.
“They had never met a Jew before,” points out the Jewish Grady. “There is a certain innocence that the children have that I hadn’t seen,” she continues, explaining the two New Yorkers had to modify their behavior accordingly. “We couldn’t swear,” jokes Ewing.
But anyone who associates religion with quiet cathedrals or temples will be surprised, since the cameras capture the children sobbing, singing and speaking in tongues — a central tenet of Pentecostal, or “charismatic,” Christians. “We were caught off-guard,” admits Grady, but “we got beyond that sense of shock. We tried to rein in the footage that we used because it’s very distracting.”
In keeping with their measured approach, they also were careful not to exploit the documentary as a political vehicle, though the topic couldn’t be avoided. “It became obvious to us that the political is so intertwined with their religion,” says Ewing. “And even if they don’t feel that what they are doing is political, to any secular person, a lot of what they are doing at the camp and a lot of what the kids are learning to do is political.” The children are taught to be pro-life, protest in front of the Supreme Court and, in a now-notorious clip, pray for President Bush over his cardboard likeness.
Images like that have landed the fresh-faced pair in the middle of a growing national controversy over the radicalization of the religious right. Michael Moore, for example, screened the documentary at his Traverse City Film Festival against the wishes of its distributor, the Mark Cuban-owned Magnolia Pictures, which wants to make the film more accessible by staying out of the political fray. Both women insist the film is evenhanded.
“They love the movie,” says Grady of their subjects. “They feel like we did them right.” Some, however, would disagree: The president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Pastor Ted Haggart, has vehemently denounced the film.
As for their next project, the duo has several ideas in development, but one thing’s for sure: no kids. “We need to take a little break,” says Grady. “We have to go to the adult world.”