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Meet the DocuWeek Filmmakers: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady--'Jesus Camp'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 18-24. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here are Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, directors/producers of Jesus Camp.

Synopsis: A growing number of Evangelical Christians believe there is a revival underway whereby young Christians must take up the leadership of the religious right. Jesus Camp follows Levi, Rachael, Tory and a number of other young children to Pastor Becky Fisher's "Kids on Fire" summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota, where kids as young as six years old are taught to become dedicated Christian soldiers in "God's Army." The film is a first-ever look into an intense training ground that recruits born-again Christian children to become an active part of America 's political future.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Heidi Ewing: After I finished college I moved to Los Angeles, and in evenings took a class by the (now-deceased) documentary filmmaker Bram Roos. His passion was inspiring and I was hooked. My first job in the business was with Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey at World of Wonder (it was still a small operation back then), and I worked in television out there for years before moving to New York and working on more serious projects. My first big break into that world was working for Jonathan Stack at Gabriel Films; that's where I met Rachel.

Rachel Grady: When I was 10 years old I saw the film Streetwise, which I was absolutely obsessed with and made my parents take me to repeatedly. I was blown away at not just the power of the storytelling but the sheer humanity that the "characters" emanated. And I continue to be blown away at the power of that.

IDA: What inspired you to make Jesus Camp?

HE and RG: Our last film, The Boys of Baraka, featured a wonderful young man named Devon Brown, who was a child preacher in a Baptist church in Baltimore. We'd never met anyone like that, and it piqued our interest in religiously devoted children. During the course of our research we ran across the summer camp in the film, and it opened up a way to explore not just Evangelical kids but the larger story of the culture war underway in the United States.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

HE: There are 100 million Evangelical Christians in the US, but there are so many subsets and recently [there has been] in-fighting among them. Not all Evangelicals share the same views, politically and theologically. So it was challenging to present one group and not generalize about the many millions who worship and live differently from the people in our film.

RG: Heidi, Enat (our editor) and I struggled enormously in cutting this movie. With no natural arc we had to create a structure from scratch, and it was the most challenging project I've ever had in the edit bay. It was a process of discovery and errors that of course all films go through (I always explain to my friends who make narratives, "We don't have a script! Editing is hard!"). But there were a lot of frustrating long nights. I love how it turned out, though.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

HE: At one point we realized that there was no tension in the film. The film was entirely from the perspective of the kids and parents in the movie, so it felt somewhat unsatisfying. We needed another voice, so we "cast" a Christian radio host named Mike Papantonio, who disagrees with the education of these children and believes that the Christian right is trampling on the separation of church and state. He added the conflict that was needed.

RG: Initially, we did not know we were making a film that was intertwined with politics until we started filming. All the conversations with each other and our main character, Becky Fischer, focused on the particular theology of this group of born-again Christians, and until we were in the field we hadn't known how intertwined the politics and their religious beliefs really were. The movie took a different course after that.

IDA: As you've screened Jesus Camp--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

HE: It is amazing to see one film garner such extremely opposing reactions. Some see it and feel "scared" by these kids, and others are inspired by them. As our distributor, Eammon Bowles (Magnolia Pictures), likes to say, "The film is a Rorschach test for how you feel about religion, so it makes for fascinating screenings."

RG: So far we have managed to excite, inspire and infuriate people on both ends of the political and spiritual spectrum. I think that's a good thing.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

HE: I really appreciate filmmakers who put a premium on the visual as well as the story, docs that feel like narratives. Werner Herzog comes to mind. I recently saw a documentary called Black Sun (by Gary Tarn), which tells the story of a French artist who went blind. The entire film is composed of shots that attempt to reflect what it must be like to see the world only with your mind. I was blown away by the creativity and imagination it took to pull this off, and it stuck with me.

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