The Revolution is Not a Dinner Party

It's Just Lunch....or IS IT??

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Devil's Playground is certainly the best documentary I have seen in quite a while (The War Room and Capturing the Friedmans come to mind). Its not perfect, but the movie's subject matter is fascinating and its level of access to the darker underbellies of the Amish community is (I think) completely unprecedented.

The film jumps around between mostly unrelated character profiles of young Amish teens reflecting on the Rumspriga--a period of time after the 16th birthday during which children who have grown up in the Amish community are freed from the rules of the church and allowed a taste of the "real" world. We learn in the end that 90% of the rumspringen return to the church...the highest rate since the founding of the church in the 17th century. In following a select few "subjects" the film also captures some really amazing scenes inside the Amish world. What's most shocking is how intermeshed the free-wheeling Rumspringa lifestyle is with the larger Amish world. The result is amazing footage of kids smoking cigarettes in their family buggy.

Here's a great summary of the folks who are filmed. Filmmaker Lucy Walker's "Notes on Completing Devil's Playground" is really fascinating. Here's some excerpts:


"The Amish generally condemn photography for fostering pride and generating "graven images" which the first commandment prohibits. But many people enjoyed being filmed so long as they weren't "posing" for the camera. And "posing" for interviews was tolerated among the Beachy Amish congregations and in some more liberal Old Order church districts. But the goal was real access to teenagers, and that turned out to be a challenge.
During rumspringa Amish young people aren't subject to Amish rules, but Amish parenting "breaks the will" of the child and they've been trained to keep their heads down, humble and invisible, in the middle of the crowd. Amish teenagers are also drastically less articulate than their "english" counterparts. English is their second language, there's no time for introspection, personal opinions are avoided, and analytical reasoning is suppressed. Of the few kids who would talk to us, very few wanted to be filmed, and fewer still could discuss themselves or their religion. "

"Each one of those introductions took days of visits and discussions. We had to earn trust every step of the way. Even with the teenagers it was crucial that I knew and respected Christian principles. It helped to refer to parables to explain our work. I spent a lot of time reading the Bible. It wasn't filmmaking, but it was what it took to make this film. "

"We weren't allowed to film any of the best scenes that we witnessed. " [almost tragic considering the amazing footage they do get]

"One night at a hoe-down I spotted Faron. He stood out from the crowd with his Tupac swagger and twang. The next day we met up again, and he was mesmerizing. I didn't immediately catch on that he was high. Other kids were hesitant to describe what they ate for breakfast, whereas Faron not only divvied up drugs on camera but shamelessly skimmed his dealer's cut too. He had an "english" girlfriend and an escalating habit. But his ambition was to follow in his father's footsteps and be a minister. He could explain aspects of the religion that completely stumped everyone else. And he told everyone that he was "joining church" in the fall."

"What has sustained me is that the experience keeps generating more questions. I still can't make up my mind. Sometimes it occurs to me that being Amish should be illegal. Learning that an emaciated 42-year-old woman I knew was anorexic because it was her only means of birth control and after 8 children she couldn't face any more. Listening to yet another boy describe how desperately he begged his parents to let him go on through high school and how much he loathed his factory job. Meeting a gay man whose Amish teen years had been a living hell of chastising himself and praying to be released from his "affliction", which the Amish consider so sinful that they won't even acknowledge it....But other times I still fantasize about giving it all up to be an Amish farmwife with sixteen kids. If you ask an Amish person you'll find out that heaven and hell are as real as New York and Los Angeles. One magic hour, sitting on the porch drinking lemonade with an old Amish couple, I was moved to tears by the love and peace and grace of their lives - free from clutter, no question as to how to live, eternity sewn up, surrounded by children and a community guaranteed to lavish love and care until the end of their days. The "english" world was ugly when I returned."

" I'm ambivalent about having documented a community that didn't want to be documented. One of the Bible passages often quoted by the Amish is 2 Corinthians 6:14: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness…" Filming the Amish is a painfully unequal yoke and I'm relieved to stop. And I wanted to promote understanding but I didn't want to ensnare people in worldly media when their life's work is to remove themselves from it."


You'll have to read yourself to see the sad update on main character Faron.


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