'The Amish': New PBS documentary explores life outside the 'English' world

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How do you make a film about people who don't want to be photographed? That's long been the complicating factor for filmmakers interested in chronicling the lives of "The Amish," but British writer/director David Belton finds a way in this new "American Experience" documentary airing at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WQED-TV.

Mr. Belton and producer Callie Wiser gained the trust of Amish families in Lancaster, Pa., Ohio, Indiana, Colorado and New York, conducting audio interviews using a digital recorder and pairing their words with images often captured from public land using a telephoto lens.

'The Amish'

When: When: 8-10 p.m. Tuesday, PBS

The resulting film offers one of the more intimate looks into the Amish way of life. It also reveals the extent of their knowledge about the outside, so-called "English," world. One Amish man discusses his anti-Wal-Mart philosophy. He says the big box retailer ruins local communities and he's grateful he's part of a group that hasn't bought into American consumerism.

"Imagine all the aisles I don't have to walk down in the store," he says, noting he has no need for shelves loaded with electronics. "I don't have to make the decisions. The community makes the decisions. To me, that's liberation."

An Amish woman expresses more of a yearning for items stocked at such a store.

"I'd like to have a camera but I don't feel it's worth it for me to throw everything else away for a few things I'd like to have," she says. "The church sets boundaries."

"The Amish" explains that each church community is composed of 25-35 families and each church sets its own rules, although they generally follow the same no-electricity, no-car precepts.

Hearing from the Amish in their own voices makes this film worth watching. "The Amish" contains a section on the Nickel Mines 2006 school shooting and there's an explanation of the Amish sense of forgiveness ("You release unto God the one who has offended you and give up the right to seek revenge," explains an Amish woman).

The Amish ability to forgive is well trod ground in TV news coverage of the school shooting and even a 2010 Lifetime Movie Network film dramatized the event. A more fascinating segment of "The Amish" features an Amish man expressing his disgust for America's pledge of allegiance.

"We're the only nation in the world that worships the flag," he says. "It's weird. It's very heathen. The kingdom we live in we pledge allegiance to God and not to a flag."

While recent efforts -- from the reality show "Amish in the City" (UPN, 2004) to documentary "Devil's Playground" (Cinemax, 2002) -- focused specifically on young Amish deciding whether to stay in their sect or risk shunning by moving away, "The Amish" takes a more holistic approach to the Amish way of life. Filmed from June 2010-July 2011, "The Amish" is broken up by seasons and while it does look at "Rumspringa," the time when Amish youth sow their wild oats, that's a small part of the film. (The documentary does not address the recent rash of Amish beard-shearing hate crimes in Ohio).

In an interview via Skype from his home in England, writer/director David Belton said Donald Kraybill, a senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College who is interviewed in the film, introduced producers to several Amish families in Lancaster. Those families suggested other Amish to interview both locally and in other states.

Mr. Belton said making "The Amish" was like "any anthropological film."

"If you go into remote parts of the Amazon and start by filming people who are hesitant and cautious, slowly you build trust and relationships and you get closer and closer and work out what's acceptable and what's not," Mr. Belton said, noting that Ms. Wiser got close to an Amish girl who consented to an interview about her baptism with scenes filmed in her bedroom, including silhouetted images of her with her baptism book and close-ups of the back of her head and a sliver of her face. "What we said was, you'd never be able to recognize her from what we shot."

Indeed, the film is respectful of the Amish individually and collectively. Shots taken from public land are no different from the pictures tourists take on a regular basis -- even though the tourists' interest befuddles the Amish.

"It's a mystery to me why they come by the millions to look at us," says an Amish man in the film. "I guess it's the simple life and the cute kids and the buggy and the pasture. But anybody's kids are cute. Is it any different, say, than going to Disney World or Yellowstone Park? Is it any different from that for the tourist? Are they yearning for something? Are they seekers?"

Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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