One of the first people we meet in The Amish—airing Tuesday, Feb. 28, on PBS's American Experience—is a voice: "Tell the cameraman to get lost."
On one level the restraint which this places on this movie is also its charm. We hear the voices of Amish with the dreamy atmospherics of hayfields, corn picking, and little children gathering potatoes. One has the feeling this may be an art house film with plain information of white on black and then bucolic farm scenes of the four seasons.
But it isn't. We soon join an Amish tour group in Intercourse, Pennsylvania. We learn that this film is a conversation with us, the millions of tourists and any other people who have some interest in the Amish. We the tourists ask the typical questions about their clothes and beliefs with a Dixie string band playing in the background. But then we're back to the Amish father's voice and his son making hay.
This endearing farmer and his son become our guides to the Amish people and the interpreters we meet in various parts of the United States. The film seems to be saying okay, the tourist places and guides are available in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Holmes County, Ohio, and Shipshewana, Indiana, but we'll introduce you to the real Amish American experience. If the restraint works visually, it also enhances an economy of explanations; we only hear the traditional Lob Lied (praise hymn), no explanations are given.
We meet the Amish women in this patriarchal society. We hear women speak on the meaning of submission, work, and church. We hear a wife sadly reflect on living with an abusive husband and how it was dealt with in the church. We hear the unadorned women's voices leading out in family gospel songs and spirituals. And a young woman reads from her journal of her baptism: "Wow, it just felt good." We hear a woman reflect on the trade-offs of Amish life; she might like to have a camera but she will give it up for the positive aspects of Amish life. To their credit, the directors earned the confidence of women to tell their stories in a very personal way.
A part of the authenticity of this film is the director's willingness to allow the dilemmas and contradictions of the Amish church simply to be. We meet the pain and force of excommunication, and we hear of the love it is intended to express. We meet the dissenters for whom Amish life is confining and who decide to leave, and we hear an Amish sage use the term "liberation" for the freedom he finds in skipping through the electronics aisle at Wal-Mart. We meet those who stay in the large settlements and those who are looking for new land out in the mountain west. We meet those who work in factories in Indiana and those who remain farmers.
We meet the medieval-like Swartzentrubers in court over building codes in rural New York state, and we meet the expressive marketers in the traditional tourist areas. Many Amish have become quite explicit and nuanced about their Christian beliefs, and early on a voice says: "The Amish are the so-called salt of the earth." Then another humble qualifier: "And I'm not saying we are. I'm saying we're supposed to be." The film does not try to resolves the dilemmas. The on-camera commentators, all seasoned reliable scholars and observers, are equally modest in their explanations.
Finally, the placement of this special on PBS reminds us how much the Amish are a part of the American experience. Today's Amish—some 250,000 who've grown out of about 10,000 a century ago—are American originals, similar to New Orleans jazz players and Appalachian bluegrass musicians. For all their conflicts with the American society, the film notes that the Amish survive, in fact, thrive only here in North America. One suspects they thrive here in good part because of the host countries' respect for the rule of law, property rights, most of all religious freedom.