First Friday Films | Take 2.5

First Friday Films | Take 2.5
...a special edition (obviously not on the first Friday) attempting to work through two documentaries I can't get out of my mind.

Jesus Camp

Rachel Grady (age 35) and Heidi Ewing (age 36) started Loki films (Loki is the Norse god of mischief) and have busted out of the gate with two incredible films. Boys of Baraka is a documentary that I own, love, and recommend, but not the subject of this post. Jesus Camp, their second film, is what I want to talk about.

Jesus Camp follows a group of kids, about age 8-12ish, to the "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devils Lake, North Dakota. "Kids on Fire" is an Evangelical Christian boot camp, for lack of a better description. Predictably, the children at the camp are taught to fight for socially conservative causes, they are led in prayers for President Bush and are told that he is a holy leader called to bring about a Christian revolution in all aspects of political and social life in America, they learn the skills necessary to evangelize the mission of Jesus, and participate in other standard activities such as live music worship services and Bible study.

The awkward paradox that pervades the film is that children are clearly the future of any movement, any church, any anything; but at the same time it feels exploitive for the camp's leaders to interact with these young children in such intense and guilt-inducing ways. I think children are beautiful and to watch them sob and writhe on the floor as they are lectured on the horrible sins they've committed was really difficult for me to watch.

While I strongly disagree with both their methods and their conservative agenda, I will say that it's hard to not respect their passion. Their passion, in and of itself, is nothing less than awe inspiring. It is terrifying, at times seemingly delusional, and utterly exhausting. However, it's also compelling and I can't take my eyes off the screen. The children being interviewed are intelligent, articulate, emotional, militant soldiers for their god. It's an unspeakably powerful thing to see in a 9-year-old and, at least in me, it engenders both dumbfounded horror and quiet respect.

Rachel Grady recently visited Salt Lake and I was lucky enough to watch Jesus Camp with her in the audience and then participate in the proverbial indie Q&A afterward. She is delightful and it's an understatement to say she's brilliant. There's no doubt that she is one to watch. In fact, I spotted an article on her in my Smithsonian magazine this month, an issue highlighting "37 under 36: America's Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences." Check it out. Anyway, Rachel told the SLC audience that when she showed the completed film to everyone who was featured in it (out of respect before it made the festival rounds), everyone loved it. They thought they were fairly portrayed (the mark of a genius documentarian) and that the film would spread their message in a positive light. No comment.

As a Christian watching this film, I had a profoundly difficult realization that I'm still struggling with weeks later. It's actually a realization I've been struggling with for about a decade now, but Jesus Camp stirred the pot and I find myself dealing with it anew. The struggle is this: It's easy for me to watch Jesus Camp and dismiss what I disagree with as "not my flavor of Christianity" (in the same way that I'm an American and I dismiss pretty much everything that President Bush has ever done as "Not in my name..."). On the other hand, it's not easy for me to dismiss what I disagree in Jesus Camp with when a little voice in the back of my head says, "Wait a minute. You've heard that before. You heard that from the pulpit on Sunday. You heard that growing up. Wait a minute..."

I have no interest in orthodoxy or evangelizing (never have). I'm a social liberal who honors the relativity belief, and non-belief, and who honors, according to my belief system, the God-given right of personal choice. I cruise along completely comfortable with myself until I run headlong into little brick walls that remind me just how conservative and orthodox many members of my faith really are. Then, as I rub my sore head, a strange cocktail of confusion, passion, indignation, and disbelief washes over me. Parts of me belong to that community and that's not easy to grapple with. So what do I do? Well, a few weeks later I watch another documentary focusing on themes of faith and I keep stirring the pot.

Audience of One

This film is the first feature-length documentary by director Mike Jacobs (age 35). He was in Salt Lake screening this film a couple weeks ago and much like Rachael Grady before him, made a very strong impression on me. He's brilliant and thoughtful and talented (and wicked hot...he's in the photo below)...and he also plans to explore more documentaries about faith, so he's made it to my list of people to watch.

This film follows Pentecostal Pastor Richard Gazowsky as he turns his San Francisco church and its members into Christian WYSIWYG Filmworks (WYSIWYG = what you see is what you get). Pastor Gazowsky said he was praying on a mountain top when he received a vision from god telling him he is meant to be the next big thing in film and that he is called to redefine the standard Hollywood epic. Gravity: the shadow of Joseph is a futuristic science fiction thriller that loosely relays the story of Joseph being sold into Egypt by his brothers, his dealings with Pharoh, Pastor Gazowsky and Director Mike Jacobs are in this photo taken opening night Q&A at the SF Film Fest.

Gazowsky is completely insane, there's little doubt about that, but there is something completely fascinating about witnessing extreme faith and eccentricity wrapped into such a complicated person. Every single person in the congregation was somehow involved in the production of the film, from costumes to acting to set design to script writing. Watching a woman, in intense sincerity, break into tearful prayer over a missing sewing needle or ask Jesus to guide her toward his preference of silk or cotton fabric for the actors hats, is quite an experience.

This movie put me into less of a tailspin than Jesus Camp, but still provided much food for thought. The part of the movie that was most frustrating for me was the lack of inertia and initiative to complete Gravity...because god would take care of it. God will tell us in which locations we need to shoot. God will tell us which fabric he wants, so we just need to have enough faith and keep praying for a day or so until he tells us (in which time we could have made our own decision and been done making the cone head hats). I don't understand that at all.

I will alienate myself from many fellow Christians by saying this, but my god expects me to not only pray and to ask...but to act. My god blessed me with the ability to reason, to think critically, to act for myself. My god expects, as do I, that my faith will inspire and move me to decision and action. I know people that are bothered by this statement because they feel it is unfaithful, disrespects god's will, and negates god's grace. Absolutely not, on all three accusations. I pray about major decisions in my life, just as I consult friends and family, spend time tuning into myself and the answer inside me, meditating, etc. but there are some things that Jesus just doesn't care about. The epic battle of silk v. cotton fabric is a good example, but there are endless others.

Furthermore, in my opinion it's not only about small versus big decisions. The big decisions of my life are taken to god for counsel, but ultimately, even with big choices, I'm the one who will act on my decision and move forward. The doctrine of my faith states, "Teach them correct principles and they govern themselves." Gravity: the shadow of Joseph is still in production and in 12-ish years (?) they have filmed only two complete scenes. What? Two scenes. I choose to honor god through my actions; and these actions show my respect for the gift of reason and autonomy I've been blessed with (that, in my opinion, we've all been blessed with). Ironically, I can thank Pastor Gazowsky for that validation.

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