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MOVIE REVIEW

Documentary 'Jesus Camp' goes to extremes

Young evangelicals attending Becky Fischer's Kids on Fire summer camp are strongly encouraged to bring their religious certainty (the more righteous the better). But they have to leave their ``Harry Potter" books and DVDs at home.

``You don't make heroes out of warlocks!" screams Fischer, a rotund woman with spiky, dyed-blond hair, during one of the sermons captured in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's eerie documentary, ``Jesus Camp." In the Old Testament, she says, dear Harry would be put to death.

In 2001, Ewing and Grady went out to the suburbs of Kansas City and followed three youngsters to Fischer's camp, which, symbolically enough, takes place every year in Devil's Lake, N.D. What they find and present, with thinly veiled disdain, is Christian fundamentalism, unyielding and strange.

Among their tactics for conveying that strangeness is to play scary electronic music over many of the scenes. It makes a lot of ``Jesus Camp" seem like a horror film, which is a needlessly incriminating touch.

To be fair, the camp does have its share of odd, even morbid, moments. Fischer, for example, types out one sermon in a dripping-blood font right out of a schlock movie. She and her staff walk around the church and tell the devil to stay away. Stuffed animals are deployed as props in a lecture on the wages of sin. Eventually, Fischer beseeches the hypocrites in her mostly preadolescent flock to come forward, repent, and receive healing ablation from the water of the word of God.

Kids on Fire feels like a religious boot camp, and the filmmakers frame the documentary around the reality that these kids are being groomed for war. Fischer is the drill sergeant. Her training exercises include encouraging the campers to speak in tongues, as she does. The enemy could be liberals or Muslim fundamentalists. They train their children for holy war. Why shouldn't she?

Ewing and Grady, whose previous film was ``The Boys of Baraka," find three boundlessly committed kids to trail. Twelve-year-old Levi is an up-and-coming preacher. His close-cropped haircut ends in a rat's tail, and he spends part of some days watching the Intelligent Design series ``Creation Adventure." He's for-real about spreading God's word.

So is Rachael , a bubbly 9-year-old. Fearlessly, she approaches strangers and hands them fundamentalist literature. Clutching a cute stuffed animal, she also gives an explanation of faith that ends in certainty that she's not going to hell. (But you might.)

Rachael's got nothing on Victoria, the tween daughter of an active-duty soldier. Don't let that preciously pink bedroom fool you. This girl loves Christian heavy metal. Victoria's main concern, though, is how others feel about her passion for dance. ``People will notice that I'm dancing for the flesh," she worries. Instead, she dances for God.

It might be too much to ask for a little more diversity in the movie's subjects. Aren't there any boring, conventionally innocent kids marching in God's army? The film does discreetly raise some important developmental questions about whether prodigies are born or concocted. Earl Woods put a 9-iron in his son's hands, but Young Tiger preternaturally knew what to do with it. Is that a reasonable analogy for what Fischer is doing with Kids on Fire? Are she and her staff nurturing kids' inchoate faith or are they exploiting it?

Because the film has no narration, Ewing and Grady rely on the left-leaning Christian talk radio host Mike Papantonio to do all the worrying, in excerpts from his broadcasts. He's afraid that there's no line between religion and politics in America, and his passion to keep the two separated is admirable. But his claims seem ponderous next to Fischer's politicized Christianity. And when she calls in to the broadcast, late in the movie, she turns out to be far more bellicose than we've seen her before.

If we are in the midst of a culture war, as many people proclaim in ``Jesus Camp," then the left should be concerned. The right's Christian soldiers appear to be extremely well trained.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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