Review: Lake of Fire

Lake of Fire is filmed in black of white. It’s worth noting that like all films we term “black and white,” its actually rendered in various shades of grey. And Tony Kaye’s documentary about abortion in America is careful to show that the issue’s history and moral questions are not black and white.

Lake of Fire is also an epic. At over two and a half hours and packed with the grizzly extremes of both basic positions on the issues, it’s probably not for everyone. Views of aborted fetuses, especially those of around three months, are hard to see. So too is it difficult to see some of the most cold-blooded and calculated doctor-killers to emerge from the context of the religious right. But at no time does Mr. Kaye’s long-in-development documentary judge either of these troubling extremes.

Kaye’s style is a form of extreme naturalism that, wisely I believe, eschews narration and other forms to impute meaning on the events that it unfurls before the audience. Where Kaye stands on the issue is completely and mercifully unclear. It thus goes without saying that those looking for a defense of their position on the issue will find the film grating.

Everyone from the most extreme perspectives on the right and left are seen. Noam Chomsky, the famous leftist, mostly stands to raise questions. The always-difficult Peter Singer is there assert that yes, a fetus is a person, but a lesser one because it has no expressed desire to live. (Regardless of the logic of the statement, when first heard Singer’s cold rationalism is jarring.)

From the right, there’s Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. And the coldness and certitude of the convicted doctor-killer Paul Hill can’t be missed. Perhaps most surprising to me was that Norma McCreevey–the “Roe” of Roe v. Wade–was there. And she’d become a card-carrying member of the pro-life movement. Maybe I was two young or inattentive when such a thing was news, but I was rather shocked.

Much of the film was shot around the peak of the turmoil of the early Clinton years. Were I to fault the film, which is truly artful and tender in it’s handling of a difficult issue, it’s that footage from different eras tends to run together. It can be hard to tell what events and interview are from the 1993-1996 era and which were shot when the film was resurrected around 2005. It’s minor problem that does little damage on an issue known for dead-lock and stasis, but it can be a distraction.

On the whole, it’s a great film and a difficult one. If there’s a central thesis, it may be that no stance on this issue is unassailable, no position safe from reasonable and difficult questions. The issue is fraught with moral dilemmas for all people and all positions on the issue, and Lake of Fire makes that point abundantly clear. The film’s comfort with the ambiguity of the issue can be hard to take, but it’s also just what the issue requires.

american society, religion, review

Review: Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp is a documentary that examines the Evangelical movement in the United States. It does this by following a few Evangelicals (I believe they’re mostly Pentecostal) for a time. And on the whole, it does a fairly even-handed job of this, not seeming to judge its subjects, merely to present them.

This may be because the directors felt no need; the film’s chief evangelist (Becky Fischer) is herself somewhat reactionary and off-putting. Her essential claim, stated very early in the film, is that America’s children need to mobilized for Jesus because Muslims around the world are fervently converting their children and arming them for a coming conflict.

To overtly critique the film’s subject, the directors have relied on a single liberal Christian radio talk show host, shown making his own show about the dangers of the evangelical movement and his view that it’s essentially missing the message of Christ.

Visually, the film is very stark. But the subjects are generally lively enough to compensate. The most important players in the drama are children: there’s Levi, 12, who is aspiring to be a preacher. Rachel, 9, who feels moved to tell a twenty-something in a bowling ally that God loves her and is thinking of her, is also particularly memorable.

Overall, the movie paints a pretty useful, if somewhat frightening, portrait of the movement. It seems to gloss over certain aspects of motives and aspirations. The characters feel slightly underdeveloped, all getting enough time on camera, but none really probed or examined in any meaningful way. That is, we see these kids at church and at camp, but with little explanation of their motives for being there.

None the less, we are given a good look at what does occur at such camps. In one striking example, Becky Fischer tells weeping young children that there are fakers among them, and that they need to admit and cease their lying because “there can be no fakers in God’s army.”

This scene and others raise some interesting questions about the most radical elements of the movement. Levi, in some ways the film’s star, is home schooled by his mother in the ways of Creationist science. His book asks him, a middle-school aged child, to explain how global warming is clearly not a real problem.

Perhaps more jarring, is the scene in which a man speaks to the children at camp about abortion. I was shocked, not least of all because most of the children at this camp were between the ages of 8 and 13. This left the man on shaky ground, teaching children who probably don’t even know the biology of reproduction what abortion is and how it is bad.

Regardless of all of this, I couldn’t stop wondering about the future of these people. Repeatedly throughout the film, adults are telling these children that they are the most important generation, and that they can win back America for God. Most of the children shown seem enthused with this idea. I was left wondering how many of the children at this camp actually felt that way. How long those shown would continue to feel that way. Would they all, if revisited in 5 or 10 years time, still be a fervent in their beliefs, or would some become cynical.

Regardless of these questions, there is no denying that Jesus Camp tells some compelling stories, and in a fairly even-handed way. If you’re curious about evangelism (especially its extremes), Jesus Camp makes a good introduction.