The Amish are such an iconic part of rural America these days that it will startle viewers of this amazing two-hour documentary to learn: Just half a century ago, hundreds of Amish parents were jailed as criminals for refusing to keep their children in school past the 8th Grade. Eventually, a U.S. Supreme Court decision freed the Amish to maintain their own culture, including foreshortened education for Amish youth.
Flash forward to 2006 when the Amish response to a mass shooting of children at their West Nickel Mines school suddenly transformed them from quaint emblems of farming life--into globally celebrated saints of peacemaking. As a journalist covering religion in America for several decades, I wrote news stories about Nickel Mines. And, I have published interviews with the leading non-Amish authority on Amish life, the scholar and author Dr. Donald Kraybill. I also strongly recommend, The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World, written by Kraybill and his colleagues in the aftermath of Nickel Mines. Now, in this American Experience film, Kraybill again speaks to the world about the Amish.
Of course, viewers immediately will realize one huge contribution of this film is that Kraybill is not the only voice we hear. Other scholars were interviewed, as well, and most of the voices we hear from start to finish are the Amish themselves--men and women.
That phrase--"the truth isn't plain or simple"--was used by American Experience to describe the scope of this film. As a journalist specializing in religion coverage for decades, I have screened pretty much every documentary about the Amish produced in the past 30 years. This documentary shown nationally on PBS is, by far, the best film I have seen about Amish life in America. Yes, the Nickel Mines story is recounted here. Yes, much of the footage is absolutely gorgeous--from stark winter scenes on the Midwest plains to a summer night when the filmmakers caught swarms of lightening bugs rising from the tall grass around a farm. Yes, on balance, the Amish come off as a noble people.
But--this film does examine the painful experience of trying to leave the Amish and it also touches on the nearly impossible problem Amish children and women face if a man in the community becomes abusive. In the documentary, we meet Saloma Furlong, whose departure from her Amish family was especially difficult. If you are intrigued by the film and Saloma's story, I urge you to get a copy of her 2011 memoir, Why I Left the Amish: A Memoir, as well.