Jesus Camp: America through Evangelical Eyes
Catching Fire: An Emotional Evening with a South African Hero
An Evening with Helen Thomas -- The First Lady of the Press

October 18, 2006

Jesus Camp: America through Evangelical Eyes
On September 20, The-Edge caught an advanced peek at the new documentary, Jesus Camp, at San Francisco's Delancy St. screening room. People for the America Way hosted the preview.

No one likes watching children being abused but mental and spiritual abuse seems to be the whole point of the intense indoctrination that goes on inside Jesus Camp. The camp, of course, is simply an extension of the Evangelical home.

The movie opens with a scene in a family kitchen where the children greet the morning by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. But this is a special pledge. It begins: "I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag" and the banner the family is saluting features a cross where the stars usually appear.

These kids are being home-schooled by their mother who reads from church-approved textbooks. She's teaching her son that global warming doesn't exist and warns against trusting "scientists."

The scene ends with one of the stunning factoids that occasionally pop up on the screen. It reads: "75% of all home-schooled children in the US are being raised by evangelical families."

At the summer retreat known as Jesus Camp, one small boy is given a microphone and told to testify. He admits nervously that "It's hard.... I don't really know if God exists. I've never seen him or heard him...." The faces of the other children reflect shock verging on mortal fear.

Later in the movie we see this boy again. He's been instructed to sit on the floor, palms open, eyes straining toward the ceiling lamps. He's waiting, waiting, waiting for the Holy Spirit to descend, fill his soul and declare him "worthy." Will he be "saved"?

Another youngster is brought on stage where an enthusiastic but mentally dim adult tells him that "Even before you were born, God had a plan for your life." He holds his palm out and moves a finger back and forth as though reading from a book and tells the boy: "This is what your future holds! Signed... GOD!"

The camera pulls in agonizingly close on the small faces, speaking in tongues, shaking with emotion, tears draining from their eyes.

The kids are instructed to pray that George W. Bush appoint a "pro-life Supreme Court Justice." One of the adults passes over a life-sized cardboard cutout of Mr. Bush. (From the fold-marks on the presidential effigy, it appears that you can order this item in the mail.) Soon, several of the little tykes are praying and kneeling at Bush's cardboard feet, their palms pressed reverently against his cardboard pants.

One of the first things that strike a viewer is the physical presence of the woman who runs Jesus Camp (which, ironically, is held in a place called Devil's Lake). Jesus Camp founder Becky Fischer has charisma (and carbohydrates) to burn. She probably weighs as much as two or three average Third World Christians.

As Fischer moved across the screen like a mousse-haired Titanic, one viewer was heard to remark: "Is this the 'Body of Christ'?"

Fischer is engaging, enthusiastic and absolutely sincere but, your can't help thinking that, if gluttony is still one of the Seven Sins, Fischer might want to consider spending less time with Jesus Christ and more time with Jenny Craig.

In the film, Fischer enjoins her young charges to become "Kids on Fire." They paint their faces, grab fighting sticks and engage in rituals that are more suggestive of "The Lord of the Flies" than the Lord of the skies.

Fischer warns the children against pop culture. "All warlocks are enemies of God," she thunders. "Harry Potter should be put to death!" (Fortunately for Harry, he's a fictional character, so Fischer can't touch him.)

What was surprising was the discovery that, as the film progresses, you not only wind up fearing the adults but you find yourself adoring children, especially the siblings, Levi and Lisa. They may be subject to indoctrination, but they aren't dumb. They're alert, eager and willing to ask questions. You have to believe that they will eventually gain the perspective to define their own lives and beliefs.

Sobering observations after seeing the film:
(1) The adults totally control what the kids think about the world,
(2) The kids are all smarter than the adults, they just don't know it yet,
(3) Under the sway of George W. Bush, Jerry Falwell and Fox News, this entire country is being run like Jesus Camp.

Catching Fire: An Emotional Evening
Derek Luke as Patrick Chamusso in Phillip Noyce's "Catch a Fire."
On October 11, Phillip Noyce, the director of The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence, hosted a special preview screening of his newest film in San Francisco's new cinema complex -- the New Century Theater in the refurbished Bloomingdales. Noyce's new film is Catch a Fire, a wrenching portrait of the transformed life of a South African freedom fighter named Patrick Chamusso. The preview was sponsored by the global human rights organization, Amnesty International.

In his opening remarks, Noyce said his new film could be called "Rabbit-Proof Fence 2" since it also deals with injustice, a pursuit, and the gulf between powerful whites and the impoverished natives of the occupied land.

Catch a Fire depicts the stark chasms that divided South Africa under Apartheid. The landscaped lawns of the white mansions contrast with the cluttered clapboard poverty of the dusty slums sprawling for miles over dusty hillsides. And on the horizon, the silhouette of the Secunda oil refinery hovers like an ever-present curse.

The contrast of cultures is particularly stark in two inter-cut scenes that follow a devastating police attack on an apartment filled with rebels. In one scene, mourners are digging graves for the dead while singing rousing anthems about the beauty of the land, its rivers and trees. In the other scene, Afrikaners are gathered to pin medals on the chests of the police who stormed the rebel compound. The white anthem celebrates the Boer's occupation of the land by recalling how "our wagon wheels" cut trails across the land.

It was a remarkable gathering for an exceptional film. Joining Noyce at the screening were the two principal actors, Derek Luke (who played Chamusso) and Bonnie Mbuli (who played his wife, Precious). Also attending were the daughters of Joe Slovo, the legendary military strategist of the Black South African freedom struggle. One of Slovo's daughters produced the film; the other wrote the screenplay. (As a member of Amnesty International mentioned at the start of the evening, Slovo's children suffered personally for their parent's activism -- their mother was brutally assassinated by agents of the Apartheid regime.)

The evening was made even more remarkable when a spokesperson for Amnesty announced: "We have a special surprise guest with us tonight. Mr. Patrick Chamusso!" A small, gently smiling man strode from the aisle to join Noyce in the front of the auditorium as the audience rose to deliver a standing ovation.

In the early 1980s, Chamusso had become a manager of the sprawling Secunda oil refinery. Despite the fact that he lived an apolitical life in hopes of bettering the environment for his wife and their two daughters, Chamusso was falsely arrested on suspicion of involvement in a bombing at the refinery.

He was detained and brutally tortured. No one knew where he was taken. Suspected of being allied with the "terrorists," of the African National Congress, Chamusso had no right to a hearing, a lawyer or a trial. (The comparison with America under Bush was palpable.) When Police Security Branch torture fails to wrest a confession, Col. Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) tries to break Chamusso by brutalizing his family.

Finally convinced of Chamusso's innocence, Vos orders Chamusso released.
But the damage has been done. Chamusso's assumption that he could improve his family's lot by keeping his head down, avoiding politics and playing the White Man's game, have been shattered. There is no going back. He slips across the border into Mozambique to join the resistance. In order to protect his wife and daughters, he leaves without a word of explanation.

In Mozambique, he meets the Joe Slovo. Like many black South Africans, Chamusso was startled to discover that Slovo was a White South African. During his training in the guerrilla camps of Mozambique, Chamusso gained the nickname "Hot Stuff." He returned to South Africa to carry out a daring and destructive bombing of the Secunda refinery. The bombing was timed to make sure that no workers were killed.

Captured after the bombing, Chamusso was sent to Robbins Island where he spent the next 10 years imprisoned with Nelson Mandela and other ANC members.

When the film ended, Noyce asked everyone to stand and "come up to the front. Let's gather up close so we can be together." After directing the audience to relocate, Noyce when about directing the conversations, making sure that everyone had an opportunity to speak and drawing out comments from Slovo's two daughters who might otherwise have been overlooked by the crowd's fascination with the actors and Chamusso himself.

In the Q and A, Chamusso recalled his shock upon meeting Slovo. "We all thought he was a black man," Chamusso said. "But when I saw that he was white, it gave me hope, for now I knew that there were white men who supported our struggle."

Noyce pointed out that this was the first trip to the US for actress Bonnie Henna, a citizen of South Africa. To the surprise of those who hadn't seen him in the film, Antoine Fischer, Derek Luke turned out not to be South African. "I'm a Jersey boy," he confessed, pausing to praise the work of his South African dialog coach.

Chamusso recalled meeting Luke for the first time and thinking that he was much too tall to play him. And then, of course, he didn't sound like a South African. A few weeks later, Chamusso received a phone call from someone he didn't know. "Who is this?" he asked. It was Luke. "No way!" Chamusso marveled. "I didn't recognize his voice. He now sounded just like a neighbor."

Noyce interrupted with a question for Luke. "Tell the audience what the first thing was that Patrick said when you met."

Luke laughed and Chamusso looked embarrassed. "The first thing he asked me was: 'Do you know Beyonce'?"

"But I also asked about Natalie Cole and Tina Turner!" Chamusso protested.

"Yeah, man," Luke shot back, "but that was later."

The film moves towards a hopeful conclusion with the freed prisoners returning from Robbins Island on a crowded boat. And, in a powerful, personal coda, the film ends with a scene that recreates another watershed moment in Chamusso's life: The day when he happened across Nic Vos, the man who tortured him many years before, eating alone on a deserted beach.

Chamusso slowly walks up behind the old man, realizing that he has the opportunity to exact his revenge. At this moment, the film borrows from the ending of Schindler's List. The face of the real Patrick Chamusso appears on the screen and he speaks to the viewers, recalling how this unanticipated reunion with Vos changed his life.

"I could have killed him," Chamusso said, "but, instead, I let him live. I forgave him and, in forgiving him, I finally gained by freedom."

Helen Thomas -- The First Lady of the Press
Helen Thomas wowed the crowd at the 30th anniversary party for the San Francisco activist organization Media Alliance. The event, held in the Green Room of the Herbst War Memorial Opera House, featured a dialogue between 81-year-old doyen of the Washington Press Corps and Bay Area news icon Belva Davis.

Davis' opening question was straightforward: "What is it like working in a Bush White House?"
It elicited a terse, grim-jawed response from Thomas: "Darkness at noon."

Davis: "What is the problem with politics these days."
Thomas: "The problem is that Bush thinks he's the president now."

Davis: Is it important that we "stay the course?"
Thomas: "What course? The course to Armageddon?"

Davis: What are your thoughts on the public's response to Bush's policies?
Thomas: "I am shocked by the passivity. The greatest sin of all with the Nazi era was silence."

Davis: But why is the public so quiet?
Thomas: "The fear card is very effective... even after they know there were no WMDs, no ties to Al Qaeda...."

Davis: Why did Thomas agree to participate in Steven Colbert's video mocking the Bush administration?
Thomas: "Because he asked. And... it was fun!" (If you haven't seen it yet, it's available on

Davis: Where can you turn to find the truth these days?
Thomas: "How come only the comedians tell the truth? Wisdom and truth are no longer on the front page; they are on the comics page."

On the consolidation of newspaper ownership: "Many great cities used to have as many as six competing papers. [Consolidation has been] a tragic trail for newspapers." When there was competition and diversity, you could pick up a newspaper and "it grabs you; it shows you things you never expected to read."

On the deaths of journalists in Iraq: "In the past three years, more than 100 reporters have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq -- more than in all of World War II. It's Russian roulette on the streets of Baghdad. These days, many reporters are BEGGING to be 'embedded.'"

Asked to assess Bush by his body language, Thomas replied: "He is an angry man... and he is an insecure man. He's looking for a way to get the hell out."

At one point, Thomas realized she might have been a bit too bleak and giggled self-mockingly: "Aren't I a downer?"

Thomas clearly still hasn't gotten over the Camelot charm of JFK. She remembered the young president giving a speech at American University in which he declared: "America will never start a war. We want a world where the weak are secure and the strong are just."

Thomas' parting thought: "Now I wake up each morning and ask: 'Who do I hate today?'"

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