Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Amish: Shunned

Halfway through the two-hour documentary, “Amish: Shunned,” my daughter asked me this question: “Why does anyone leave the Amish?” I responded: “The better question is this: Why does anyone stay?” “Amish: Shunned” is an attempt to exploit popular interest in the Amish spawned by reality shows about the cult. Produced for PBS, however, the documentary is the opposite of the trashy TV reality shows on this subject -- this documentary is so fair and balanced and decorous that it is almost lifeless. The film features four Amish people who have escaped from the rigid discipline and intolerant bigotry of their sect. One young man is almost illiterate (it is painful to hear him read from his mother’s letter imploring him to return to the cult). He’s dimwitted and seems surprised that he can earn a living in construction work in the “English world”. This boy has fallen into the clutches of a self-righteous former Amish man who lives in a grim-looking and wintry Mansfield, Ohio. This fellow, who left the Amish seven times before staying away for good, is a religious fanatic, a man who sees himself as a missionary to his benighted kinfolk -- he has an apartment in the cellar and runs a kind of underground railway station for refugees from the suffocating Amish world. He is clearly half-crazy himself and views the Amish as misguided -- they are, in his view, trapped in the old covenant of law and rule and sin, unable to grasp that faith in Jesus alone is all that is required for salvation. A nice-looking blonde girl comes from a liberal Amish family -- they let her fly to Florida to visit relatives living there (amazingly, there are Amish snow-birds). She ends up leaving the community and gets a college degree in nursing, but is able to maintain some ties with her family. Another young woman is pathetically ill-equipped to survive in the outside world. Homely and fat, the young woman is 23, apparently spurned by eligible Amish bachelors and regarded as an “old maid” in the community. The poor woman can barely speak in intelligible English; she has a peculiar, strangled German accent. An older woman who left the Amish community many years earlier tries to rehabilitate her. But this effort is unsuccessful and, not surprisingly, the film ends with the young woman donning her bulky, uncomfortable Amish clothes and returning to the hovel where she was raised with seven or ten or 14 siblings -- I don’t recall which. Before leaving the half-way house in the English world, she mourns the fact that she will no longer be able to listen to music or go to the movies or watch TV or wear light and comfortable modern clothing. (There is a baffling and bizarre fifth story explored by the documentary -- an account of some hippies who became Amish wannabes, raised their children in the church, and, then, when they departed for the outside world were shunned by their eldest son and his family, even though the man is not really even Amish. We see this idiot plowing with primitive horse and coulter, seemingly more Amish than his real Amish neighbors who seem to be quite comfortable with weed-whackers and roto-tillers and power washing machines as well as elaborate automated milking equipment. Sad-eyed, the man tells us he’s caught between two cultures, not really Amish and not English either. It’s a weird story and more, I think, about the damage that sixties hippies did to their hapless children than about the Amish and their culture.) The Amish side to this story is not fairly presented. This is an inequity, however, based upon their ridiculous, rigid, and completely inconsistent dogma -- they will not allow themselves to be filmed, didn’t cooperate with the documentary, and so appear only as silhouettes in covertly staged long-shots or as a voice-over proclaiming variations on the theme that their ignorance is truly invincible: the chief voice gloats that one Amish young man gave up on his college education (he was studying mechanical engineering) upon returning home for a holiday by the time he had reached the end of the family farm’s driveway. The making of the film is acknowledged as an integral aspect in the nurse’s rejection of her religion; she says that when the people in her family saw that she was being filmed for the documentary, they realized for the first time that she was not coming back to the fold. The film is fantastically beautiful in a cold, distanced, and incommunicative way. Since there is really little or nothing to film, the camera lingers on gorgeous rural landscapes, Amish farm workers backlit against green horizons and lowering skies. The interiors are shot in warm, honey-colored Vermeer light and there a many shots of doorways and corridors, empty frames such as those in Ozu’s films -- still-life photography of drowsing animals, pots of jam, kitchen tables, all of this made poetic by a plaintive violin, something like the ”Ashokan Farewell” in Ken Burns’ execrable films about the Civil War. The documentary’s austere and formal beauty doesn’t really tell us anything about the Amish -- old farmhouses and sleeping dogs and cats and horse-drawn buggies and plows are inherently photogenic. The Amish are a kind of American Taliban, less vicious, I suppose, than their Muslim relatives because they seem more ignorant and inflexible. They preserve their vicious culture, based on child-labor and the subjugation of women, by refusing to properly educate their children -- in this way, they resemble the Taliban thugs who throw acid in the faces of young girls who have the courage to attend school. There is nothing ennobling or honorable or praise-worthy in ignorance preserved by bullying tactics

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