[5 February 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I started painting,” says Jan, “to show people what I had seen.” The camera cuts from her figure, bent toward her easel, to a close up of her painting, a bearded Amish man standing before a white house, women in the background hanging laundry on a line. Jan’s shadow blocks most of the canvas, as she remembers her childhood, without TV or magazines, her shadow blocking most of the canvas. “This is what I saw,” she says.
Jan remembers her previous life for The Amish: Shunned, the remarkable new episode of American Experience, both the sense of community that appealed to her as a young wife “trying to learn to live off the land” in Ohio during the 1970s and also, the increasing sense of worry once her son was married. The new presence in their household, “an authentic German person,” as Jan phrases it, changed their daily interactions: “We had the eyes of the community on the house now,” Jan recalls, “I thought maybe I had given up too much, given up the ability to even speak freely in my own home.”
The tensions Jan describes escalated, eventually leading to her family’s shunning and excommunication by the Amish. Such tensions shape many of the stories told in Callie T. Wiser’s carefully observed film, as individuals recall idyllic childhoods and miss their families and communities. This isn’t to say that al of their experiences are the same. Naomi says that as an Amish girl, “Your world is really small, it’s really sheltered. When I was younger I used to be kind of disappointed that I wasn’t allowed to wear a prom dress and go to prom.” The Amish, she goes on, “believe in keeping away from the world,” protecting the community by adhering to strict rules. “If you allow one thing after another,” she says, “pretty soon you wouldn’t have the culture anymore.” In her telling, that culture is strong and also fragile. When she was young, an interviewer came the farm and “started shooting a bunch of photos of us,” Naomi and her seven siblings. As she speaks, you see these black and white images, Naomi’s young face stern but also dynamic, looking into the camera.
For a moment Naomi wonders why her parents allowed the interviewer to take these forbidden photos. When she goes back to visit her family as an adult, the American Experience film crew in tow, Naomi realizes the effect of the intrusion, the effort to show and to see from “outside.” Several shots show Naomi alongside her sister hanging laundry, dressed in traditional Amish garb per their parents’ request. “Being there and being filmed was a reminder that my life’s very different now,” Naomi says sadly, the camera now close on her face. “All the memories at home of where I grew up and just having…” Here she stops speaking, overcome, first leaning out of frame, then back, a familiar sort of TV-melodrama. But then the camera cuts away, to another shot of Naomi through a doorway, working in a middle distance. “It’s a profound loss,” she adds, “and I think maybe I still grieve over the things I’ve lost. The idea that I was allowing someone to film me made it final.”
Again and again, The Amish: Shunned makes visible such complicated responses to being Amish, not only through interviews with those who have left, but also, some with those who stay. As they cannot be filmed, their audio is accompanied by scenes of Amish experience. Horse-drawn buggies make their way over hillsides, families work in fields, children play in snowy yards. These interviews indicate the need for order, the strength and fragility of the community. “It isn’t for everybody, not everybody can do it,” says one woman while you watch a family harvesting pumpkins, “But if you know where your boundaries are and you respect ‘em and you’re happy there, it brings a freedom.”
Though this woman remembers occasions when cars or phones seemed appealing to her as a girl, she also sees her choice as the right one for her. She stays Amish, she says, to ensure that her children can experience the happiness she felt when she was young. The Amish: Shunned reveals the complexity of these lives and choices, hopes and losses. It not only raises questions, but also renders them unusually concrete, visible in the strained faces of on-camera interviewees or in the daily poetry of farm work offered under voiceover interviews. All of these images offer new looks at experiences so rarely seen.