The Amish debuts tonight on PBS at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 7 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets (check your local listings).
The first title card of American Experience: The Amish lays out the difficulty of what director David Belton had to overcome to make this documentary in the first place: “The Amish will not pose for photos or be interviewed on camera.” That’s a pretty serious hitch in the documentary flow, but there are a couple loopholes. A handful of Amish men and women agreed to have their voices recorded, and, as a tour guide explains in the beginning of the section, pictures from farther away aren’t as much of a concern as close-up shots. Most of the visual content of The Amish is far away glimpses of towheaded children in breeches romping through the fields and bonneted women filing up for church or doing the laundry in the wee hours of the morning, narrated by disembodied voices of anonymous Amish people. For a documentary that seeks to go beyond the surface of the Amish community, this often proves problematic. The glossy landscapes of pastoral life veer toward idealizing the Amish rather than helping outsiders understand them.
Still, here’s a great deal of good material here. Many of the shots, particularly one of the fireflies rising off a field in summer over the darkened windows of Amish homes, are downright beautiful, and the score complements them marvelously. For those unfamiliar with the specifics of the Amish way of life, as I was, Belton provides a good introduction to the community’s history and way of thinking about the world. The Amish began in Europe as a persecuted Anabaptist sect, hunted down in medieval times for their radical belief that baptism should be an adult decision rather than a sacrament given at birth. The strict Amish Ordnung—the set of rules that determines how wide the brims of the men’s straw hats are and whether a bicycle is allowed or forbidden—actually varies a great degree between church communities. Most amusing of all is a snippet of 1930s newsreel footage with a fast-paced narrator explaining that some of the Amish in Lancaster County believe that buttons are too ostentatious—cut to a shot of a grinning woman with the front of her dress held together with safety pins. (Why the no posing for photos rule didn’t apply then is a little unclear.)
One of the most fascinating things the documentary does is it traces the American attitude toward the Amish community as a whole, narrated by a handful of sociologists, historians, and anthropologists. Until the introduction of the telephone into the American home, the Amish didn’t live very differently from many of their neighbors. Children attended the same one-room schoolhouses, and many if not most rural areas had yet to get electricity. The introduction of the telephone, and the Amish’s refusal to have phone lines in their homes for fear that it would fracture their family life (they can still use public phones) drew suspicion from their neighbors. In the 1920s, technological progress was generally assumed to be equivalent to societal progress as a whole, and the Amish’s rejection of it led to somewhat hostile attitudes toward their practices. But a couple decades later, spurred on by court cases against Amish men who took their children out of school, opinions began to shift towards embracing the Amish. People began emphasizing the Amish’s self-sufficiency, their lives close to the land as a tenet of American life that the rest of us, coddled by convenience stores and pop culture are presumably missing out on. The theme in the Amish narrative began to be that, as historian David Weaver-Zercher explains, “They represent something true and virtuous that the rest of America has lost.”
You get that feeling that Belton agrees with him. The emphasis on an insular family and friend community is especially apparent in a scene of Amish teenagers during rumspringa, that time that 16-year-old Amish are allowed to go out with their friends and explore the world. The popular narrative of this time is something like the Amish go on MTV’s spring break, throwing away their cares to boldly use electrical devices and drive ATVs or something. But the scene we get is of Amish youth at the county fair, clumping together in groups of girls and boys, drinking grape soda right from the three-liter bottle. An Amish girl explains that her worst fear for the future would be if she married someone who wanted to move away from her church. “I think 14 miles from home is a long way away,” she tells the interviewer. “How far do you live from your friends?”
Belton touches briefly on some of the difficulties in the Amish community: We hear from a woman who was abused by her husband, only to have the church ban her for speaking about it. Men who would prefer to be farming have been forced into factory work, leading them to question the future for their homes and churches. There’s a scene of a group of Amish looking to purchase cheap, arable land in Colorado, the purple Rockies sweeping over the black-coated men surveying their future with determined optimism. But, perhaps due to the difficulty of the subject, The Amish still keeps us at arm’s length from the people it sympathizes with. In the beginning, a title card informs you that 20 million visitors a year see the Amish country—which consists of only a quarter million Amish people. At the end of The Amish, you feel like you’ve joined the ranks of the spectators. The community you’re watching remains as distant as ever.