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PBS movie on Amish faced many hurdles

Faced with subjects whose religion and culture prohibit them from giving interviews on camera or even posing for pictures, many filmmakers would have given up.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Faced with subjects whose religion and culture prohibit them from giving interviews on camera or even posing for pictures, many filmmakers would have given up.

The folks at PBS' "American Experience" stuck with it, however, and emerged with a revealing look at the Amish, a religious community of about 250,000 centered primarily in rural Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. The film premieres Tuesday on PBS stations.

The Amish, distinguished by their horse-and-buggy mode of transportation, proved not only elusive to study but more complex than most outsiders realize.

"It grew on me how interesting they were and how intriguing they were and how relatively little we knew about them, even though busload after busload of tourists come in to see them," said Mark Samels, executive producer of "American Experience."

As he got to know many Amish, Samels found them as baffled by the idea of being a tourist attraction as the outsiders were of them.

A Christian offshoot, the Amish church was formed in Europe 300 years ago, but its members were persecuted for their belief in adult baptism. They fled overseas and settled in Pennsylvania in the 1730s.

They blended in fairly well with a simple, rural life working the land, at least until the Industrial Revolution. The rest of America modernized, but the Amish didn't. And that makes them stand out.

PBS filmmakers spent a year on "The Amish," getting to know the people and building trust that they weren't looking to exploit the church. They learned their way around the restrictions. While church rules prohibit the Amish from posing for pictures, filmmakers could take footage of members working on farms or walking into church — at least to a point.

"There will be a time when someone walks over and invites you to leave, and you need to respect that," Samels said.

Similarly, they don't give on-camera interviews because of a tradition of individuals not calling attention to themselves, said Donald Kraybill, a scholar at Elizabethtown College and author of books on the Amish. Church members did speak off-camera, and as a result, the PBS film is essentially narrated by the Amish.

Kraybill, who advised the PBS filmmakers, said "The Amish" was very well done, even historical because of the breadth of knowledge it offers. "They did it with a remarkable measure of respect and integrity, with an enormous amount of sensitivity to the Amish moral guidelines," he said.

The Amish have no central church structure, and have many different subgroups often distinguished by the color of their buggies. Each congregation has about 25 to 35 different families, with services held in homes and conducted by members. The 1,900 congregations make their own rules; some don't permit members to ride bicycles, for instance, while another one a few miles away may allow it.

"You say, 'What do the Amish think and believe?' and you have to ask, 'Which Amish are you talking about?'" Samels said. "It's maddeningly complex."

Society's modernization created conflicts with the Amish way of life. They resist laws requiring smoke detectors in homes, believing a machine should not interfere with God's will. For years, Pennsylvania fought against the Amish tradition of removing their children from school after the eighth grade, until the U.S. Supreme Court permitted it in 1972.

A tragic intrusion of the real world into the Amish way of life came in 2006, when a man entered a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and shot 10 Amish girls, five of them fatally, before committing suicide.

What seemed remarkable to outsiders was that several Amish went to the home of the assailant's family that night to offer forgiveness. Thirty Amish went to the funeral, including some parents of his victims.

The PBS filmmakers speak to the parents of one dead girl, and it's evident how difficult it was to forgive. "I cry," the mother said. "It hurts."

"You can hear the tension in that woman between her beliefs and her emotions," Samels said. "She's as angry and grief-stricken as any of us (would be), but she's finding solace in her beliefs."

The interview nearly forced Samels into a difficult decision. The parents consented to speak to PBS, but insisted that actors deliver their words instead of them. Valuable as the interview was, Samels was concerned this would hurt the film's authenticity. Finally, near the end of filming, the couple changed their minds and spoke.

"The Amish" also includes interviews with two people who have left the church, unable to handle the sublimation of individuality, and addresses the difficult topic of shunning. People who leave the church are cut off by their family and friends as if they are no longer alive, an excruciating fate in a community that sticks so closely to itself.

"We didn't want it to be this romanticized view of the Amish," Samels said. "We wanted it to be real."

With land becoming more expensive, it is harder for the Amish to maintain a farm-based society. There are thousands of Amish-owned businesses, but more community members must deal with outsiders for work. At the same time, Amish people have spread into 28 states and Canada; one part of the film shows leaders of one congregation seeking land in Colorado.

Although this may seem to threaten their way of life, Amish children are staying in the church in record numbers. Even though the Amish are not evangelicals — they don't invite outsiders in — the size of the Amish population is doubling every 19 years, Kraybill said.

The Amish are in so many ways different from most Americans now. They live a simple, family based life as society gets more complex and spread out. America celebrates the individual spirit, while the Amish favor the collective. Yet it's a tribute to the nation that these differences are respected and the Amish are allowed to live as they do, Samels said.

"At a time we are questioning our strengths, this is one we should feel good about," he said.




EDITOR'S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at) or on Twitter (at)dbauder.