With Jesus Camp, documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have captured some timely lightning in a bottle. After making a name together with 2005's The Boys of Baraka, which tracked the experiences of a trio of young African-American boys transported from their crime-ridden Philadelphia neighborhood to a boarding school in Kenya, Ewing and Grady embarked on a way-behind-the-scenes investigation of the Evangelical youth movement. The resulting film, now hitting theaters nationwide, has already made a splash on the internet with its shock footage of prepubescent kids swept up in fierce spiritual raptures, and ministry leader Becky Fischer extolling the virtues of American children willing to lay down their lives for God "like the Muslims." But Jesus Camp is deeper than a freak show. Capturing a rich vision of American fundamentalism, it's being marketed to both sides of the religious divide; in a rare twist, the indie documentary opened in the Evangelical center of Colorado Springs weeks before its debut in lefty, film-loving Seattle.

First things first: How did you find your subject matter?

EWING: Did you see our last film, The Boys of Baraka?

Just Netflixed it.

EWING: Good! Keep those numbers up. One of the children in [The Boys of Baraka] was a child preacher, a Baptist—completely different than the kids in [Jesus Camp], but an alarming, amazing, startling, fantastic character. I'd heard there was a school in New Orleans for child preachers, but I never found it. But in the course of that research, I ran across this mini-movement of mainly Pentecostal, Evangelical Christians who raise and sort of train their children in this extreme way from a very early age. We found Becky Fischer and the kids in ministry on a national website, and it was one of those moments when you see something and you know it's a film. You know there's a movie there. Every day on the front page, there's something about the power of the evangelical movement, and we thought, what an original way to approach a subject, through the eyes of 9- and 10-year-old children. We started talking to Becky Fischer, A&E films came in and financed it, and we were literally up and running within 12 weeks of stumbling on the idea.

How was the idea of the film met by the subjects?

EWING: Becky Fischer was surprised that what she called "a secular crew" would be interested in what she was doing. She was curious, and once she met us, she realized that film is a good way to get her message across. Our interests were combined—we wanted to make a film about what she was doing, and she was interested in getting her word across.

How did you navigate your access to the kids?

EWING: We met all of the children and their parents through Becky, and there was a getting-to-know-each-other period, when we needed to build trust and a sense of intimacy. We liked them very much, and so we were able to build that intimacy quickly. We filmed in their homes and churches many, many times besides at the camp, so we had our own relationships with the families after Becky got us in there.

I'd imagine that coming in as "secular filmmakers," you'd have a mountain of skepticism to climb.

GRADY: They never seemed incredibly suspicious of us. I think that they knew they were in good hands. Heidi and I are very respectful and very cognizant of the fact that when someone is giving you something that's personal, they're letting you into their lives and you have to respect that.

EWING: You have to approach the subject matter complete seriously, give everyone the absolute, utmost respect, and you have to listen. We really try very, very hard to understand what's going on beyond the superficial, and I think they sensed that in us. They also got a chance to look at our past work. We don't make films with narration. There was never going to be a voice of God. We weren't going to be writing crazy narration with some sort of subjective view—at the very least they knew that. Ultimately, they were surprised and flattered that we were interested, and once we were accepted, they were like, "Bring it on! Let's show you what we do!"

There are a number of scenes when the kids "stew in the spirit," and are taken up into spiritual frenzies. What did it feel like, being in the room?

EWING: It was extremely draining.

GRADY: Exhausting.

EWING: It went on for hours. In the movie, of course, we cut it down for three minutes, but we got five hours of it.

Did the kids' raptures feel legitimate?

EWING: Everything you see on film is legitimate. There were a few fakers, a group of girls that were clearly embellishing for the camera, and we didn't use a shot of any of them. Everything in the movie we feel is a legitimate expression of the faith.

What element of their world did you find most surprising?

EWING: The most surprising and startling thing I learned was that [Evangelical Christians] don't believe what they're doing is political, not at all. To them, "political" almost seems like a flim-flam word for what they're doing—it's almost distasteful. In their minds, what they're doing is God's will. We can insist on the separation of church and state all we want, but for them, everything is merged into what they believe God wants them to do on this earth. And when you've got millions and millions of people that feel that way, it unifies them in such an incredibly forceful way.

Were there any elements that were surprisingly seductive?

GRADY: The most surprisingly seductive thing was the spirit of the kids. I've never seen kids that were so safe and secure. All kids want structure so bad—to feel safe and secure—and these kids have it in spades. It makes them incredibly self-confident, and I could see how that would be really seductive, especially for a kid. Their world is so black and white. Of course, eventually puberty hits, and kids start questioning authority and wanting to figure out who they are and defining themselves, and we'll see what happens when they get to that point. But I could see the seduction of feeling like nothing wrong could happen to me if I just do what my parents tell me. I mean, they all sleep great at night. They know where they're going, they know where they've been, they know why they're on this earth, they know what they're doing. No worries.

Can secular humanism ever hope to compete with such certainty?

EWING: It's tough to compete with that. If you look at the planet earth, the division between those secular humanists and those who tend toward fundamentalism, I'm not sure that secular humanists are even the majority. Maybe what's happening in this country—while distasteful, scary, and unpleasant to many—maybe it's the norm. Maybe the human norm is to strive for the afterlife and live your life on earth with that next life in mind, and we're just not used to that idea because we're a young little country of a couple hundred years, and we didn't expect this to happen here so soon.