Canoeing with Christ

Heidi Ewing doesn't fit the standard image of a documentary filmmaker. Sharply dressed in a pin-striped blazer and skirt with sparkling accoutrements, she looks more like she walked out of an episode of Sex and the City than a film theory class. She's much more likely to engage you in a discussion on Stephen Colbert's interviewing style or the unintentional hilarity of Showgirls than she is on, say, the issue of male-gaze subjectivity in the nonfiction chestnut Nanook of the North.

In addition to her cosmopolitan demeanor, Ewing possesses an attention to craft that would make many of her peers jealous. When the Farmington Hills native and New York transplant talks about her films, she speaks of them in the way a storyteller might. Where another director might refer to the people in his or her film as if they existed in a petri dish ("subjects" with "trajectories"), Ewing peppers her speech with affection for her "characters" or "the momentum in the second act."

It's a telling trait for a woman who can't help but get involved with the people she films. Working with her co-director and filmmaking partner, Washington, D.C., native Rachel Grady, Ewing has a knack for creating intensive profiles of how adults shape youth culture. Last year's critically acclaimed Boys of Baraka was a heartrending, fly-on-the-wall look at a now-defunct program in which "at-risk" boys from Baltimore were sent to boarding school in Africa.

Now, she and Grady have touched upon a more incendiary issue with the newly released Jesus Camp. The film concerns the nurturing of evangelical Christian children by Pastor Becky Fischer, a sort of Pentecostal pied piper, who runs the Kids on Fire summer camp in North Dakota every year. Becky's methods are unconventional, to put it lightly. She uses Barbie and Ken dolls to demonstrate the story of Adam and Eve, and she emotionally fires up her campers until they're chanting for "righteous judges" who will abolish abortion. During prayer, 9-year-old girls speak in tongues and bawl their eyes out. The results are undeniable: Three of her young charges profiled in the film go on to be devoted soldiers of God, their mission in life to convince total strangers to be born again.

"Good films need great characters, and great characters are passionate about what they do," Ewing says. She doesn't pass judgment on Pastor Fischer, even if she disagrees with her tactics, one of which includes wielding a plastic scythe to demonstrate the lure of the devil.

"She is totally passionate and into what she's doing," Ewing says. "She thinks that she is absolutely doing her calling, as told to her by God, and she's extremely innovative and inventive and creative — you can see how she can translate her vision to kids."

Just as she did with the boys in Baraka, Ewing spent so much time hanging out with the Jesus Camp kids and their mentors — not only during camp, but before and after — that they developed a bond. During our interview, she even receives a phone call from Becky, who's making the interview rounds, defending her organization's radical scare tactics.

Ewing says that she and Grady didn't have to push very hard to gain access to Kids on Fire. "They felt like, 'Bring it on, we have nothing to hide, let's show them what we do,'" she says. "They were flattered that we were interested in what they were doing."

Although it may be clear where the filmmakers' religious sympathies lie — Ewing describes herself as a "lapsed Catholic" and Grady is Jewish — that didn't prevent Fischer or the kids from opening up to them. One viewing of Baraka — which, like Jesus Camp, has no voiceover and uses few subjective techniques — was enough to persuade Fischer to offer full access to the filmmakers.

"We were outsiders from New York City who wear a different kind of clothes, talk a different kind of way, coming into Missouri and Kansas City, and of interest to them only moderately," Ewing says. "In a way, I was like, 'They're totally renegade, man!' I thought, 'That's kind of cool.' They could give a toss."

Ewing found a group of youngsters so focused on a higher goal that they couldn't help but be candid.

"It was amazing to observe kids with this kind of intense focus on the 'end times,' on Jesus, on the 'good works,' and they talk like 30-year-olds," she says. "I'd never met kids like this."

Rather than an attempt to capitalize on the polarization between right-wing and left-wing America — as some film critics and political commentators have branded it — Ewing insists that Jesus Camp is an effort to bridge the divide. To that end, she and Grady made an effort to contrast Pastor Fischer's sermons with the voice of Air America's Ring of Fire talk show host Mike Papantonio, who stresses a more nonpartisan religious ideal.

She hopes her film will spark some necessary, thoughtful dialogue, not just the pointless arguing we've become accustomed to.

"No one is hearing or talking to each other, and we all live in our little bubbles," Ewing says. "We cannot count on CNN and Fox to do our thinking for us, for God's sake. That's what documentary is for. Let's sit for 90 minutes, let's think about a few things — I mean, you can't do it all, but you can tell a story the best you can. Things are happening — we have to have this conversation."


Jesus Camp opens at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111). For a review, see our cinema section starting on Page 34.

Michael Hastings writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].
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