Monday, August 24, 2009

With God on my Side I can go to Jesus Camp: Religious Documentaries

By Leah Aspinall

When Michael Moore made documentaries popular and controversial at the same time, he opened the gateway for many filmmakers to cover topics they had steered away from in the past. A reason many documentary filmmakers give when asked why they decided to look at what they did is they wanted the world to know about it, they wanted their voice heard and their topic recognised. This reason could also be used when asking a church why they conduct a Sunday morning service or put a billboard up with a message from the bible. From this it would seem only logical that many documentaries tackle the large and rocky road that is religion. Although religion has been covered in numerous fictional films, from The Ten Commandments to Bruce Almighty, the documentary platform for religion is a hard path to tread as many who are interested are agnostic or atheist and therefore take a decidedly biased view for the topics they cover however there are others who succeed in presenting a balanced view on religion. Two of these films are Andrew Denton’s God on my Side and Jesus Camp which was produced by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

In God on my Side, Andrew Denton travels to America to attend the convention of Christian broadcasters from America and around the world, looking at those who deal in getting the message out there. Denton narrates telling his viewers that whilst this all may seem kitschy at first, there is serious intent behind what all these broadcasters are doing (God on my Side 2006). Throughout the convention Denton manages to interview and look at every aspect of religious broadcasting and how the message is sold remaining throughout the film an even handed, non-judgmental observer and although sceptical at times, he maintains his role as interviewer and only asks what the interviewees lead him into, leaving his own agenda behind. Through this the audience learns that there are 350 television stations and 750 radio stations giving the National religious broadcasters an audience of 141 million Americans (God on my Side 2006). Furthermore they learn how children are recognised as a targeted group and about seminars that are run on how to best get the message across to them.

“….To remain a strong and prosperous nation, we will continue to rally the armies of compassion. Over the past five years the American people have repeatedly answered the call to love their neighbours as they would like to be loved themselves.”

(George Bush in God on my Side 2006)

Later on we also learn about how strong the Christian community is in relation to politics and that 40% of George Bush’s vote belongs to evangelical Christians. Finally the concept of the apocalypse or rapture is brought forward with many of the interviewees indicating that all the signs are there, that we are the last generation and that those left behind won’t be going to heaven.

This view of those who don’t believe will not be saved is also highly encouraged within another documentary called Jesus Camp which takes the viewer into the world of evangelical Christianity and their role in bringing children up to recruit and preach the word of Jesus. Three young children are interviewed and followed and their parents and minister are also interviewed. The film follows these children from local prayer meetings, homeschooling, bowling and finally to the ‘Kids on Fire’ camp, all of these venues no matter how unassuming they are, are permeated by an active preaching of Jesus’ word. Throughout the film, the audience observes both the children and the adults put forth the unwavering view that they have been saved and that nothing is needed but Jesus in their hearts (Jesus Camp 2006). Stark images of kids with life written on red tape across their mouths protesting abortion, a young girl recounting how she would like to be beautician when she’s older so she can preach the word to non believers when their barriers are down and their pastor Becky Fisher speak openly of her view of teaching the word to children is both disturbing and insightful to hear and watch.

“I can go into a playground of kids that don't know anything about Christianity, lead them to the Lord in a matter of, just no time at all, and just moments later they can be seeing visions and hearing the voice of God, because they're so open. They are so usable in Christianity.”

(Becky Fisher in Jesus Camp 2006)

Jesus Camp leaves the profound impression that faith of any kind is a weapon and for Evangelical Christians the weapon they plan to use is children. Unlike the God on my Side, there isn’t a guiding interviewer or narrator but rather a fly on the wall/hidden interviewer approach to give a full unencumbered view of life within this evangelical community. Through this technique the audience is able to see a snapshot of the evangelical way of life without judgement which could have happened when filming such a sensitive matter therefore giving the film an even handed view.

To conclude, many religious areas dwell outside the norm of everyday life and in both of these mentioned documentaries, the filmmakers succeed in showing the audience a side of the religious world that isn’t always seen. In God on my Side Denton provides an awareness of how religion has become an industry of faith, selling the word of god to the world in the best way possible from toddlers to old timers. Similarly Jesus Camp provides an idea of just how important the younger generation is, displaying how the evangelical community is creating young soldiers. Therefore although Jesus Camp is certainly harder hitting through the fly on the wall approach, the commercialisation of religion that God on my Side displays is perhaps just as worrying.

God on my Side (2006), motion picture, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia, Directed by Andrew Denton

Jesus Camp (2006), motion picture, A&E IndieFilms, USA, Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

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