I just had a chance to watch an advance copy of the new PBS film The Amish: Shunned.
I’ve never been, and never will be, an excommunicated Amish person, and so don’t know what that’s like. But I’ve heard enough stories from both sides to know that it can’t be easy.
That’s why I was curious about this film. I think this is a difficult subject to do a film about, for various reasons, including doing justice to both the Amish and former Amish perspectives.
That’s why I was pleasantly–surprised is not the right word, as PBS and writer/director/producer Callie Wiser have a track record with their previous film–let’s just say pleased to see what the film achieves. Having now viewed it twice, I can share a little bit about it.
First I will say that The Amish: Shunned carries a number of the positive elements of the first PBS film on the Amish in 2012, including beautiful cinematography and significant Amish participation.
Missing in this one are the expert voices explaining the Amish, which is an interesting choice. This leaves it to each side to tell their story without interpretation by an academic speaker. The film thus feels a bit more raw, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
You are getting former Amish people’s first-person stories, and whether or not you think the Amish system of church discipline is a good or bad thing, you can see these people have been through difficult experiences.
You can also see they are conflicted. Most seem to miss what they’ve left behind even when balanced against the excitement and fulfillment some of them are finding in their new lives.
Some of the descriptions of the excommunicated individuals present a harsh picture of their Amish families and churches. For instance, one speaker says that his father told him that if he didn’t return, he’d “cut you off forever”. Fear of dying and going to hell arises more than once.
The Amish people they are talking about are not there to rebut or confirm what they say. But Amish voices do appear interspersed throughout the film, giving the general Amish perspective.
Three points on “The Amish: Shunned”
There are a lot of things one could discuss about this film, but I wanted to touch on three:
1. Freedom vs. Family. As mentioned previously, the film’s “Your Freedom or Your Family” tagline jumped out at me in the original clip. It seemed a particularly bleak way to paint it–for the implication that if you choose the Amish, you forgo freedom in the captivity of Amish society.
But for the former Amish participants here, that picture may be close to the mark. Some speakers emphasize the freedom aspect of their decisions. Particularly given their highly traditional backgrounds, the contrasts between Amish life and non-Amish life must have been stark.
The film’s Amish speakers also have a chance to discuss freedom. One Amish woman suggests that if you know and respect your boundaries, “it brings a freedom”. Another challenges the formula for happiness of “maximiz[ing] our pleasure and minimiz[ing] our pain”.
Home is a huge part of this film. A number of the former Amish suffer from lack of home. Their freedom has been achieved by sacrifice of things they hold dear, like a close relationship with family.
Leaving aside the question of how much freedom may be found within and without the Amish, there is a trade-off involved in choosing to be Amish. Though if you’re raised in the society, it may feel like less of a trade-off than if you are someone who joins the Amish.
2. Edwards Family. Which brings us to our next topic. The story of the Edwards is one you may not have heard much of before, though they have appeared in at least one other national news program. The Edwards family, including mother Jan and son Paul, joined the Swartzentruber Amish in Ohio in the 1980s.
As Paul admits at one point, “we had no idea what it meant to be Amish”. Though Paul even rises to a position of church leadership, things don’t work out for the family. Their story provides an interesting alternative example, of people who came from the outside, joined the most conservative Amish of all, and are now back outside the church.
3. Balance. How balanced will this be? was a question raised in our previous post. The film features seven former Amish: Anna, Saloma, Naomi, Levi, Joe, Jan, and Paul. There are about the same number of individual Amish voices interspersed among the former Amish stories.
However, and as you might expect, there is a lot more speaking and screen time alloted to the former Amish. I counted a total of eight Amish speaking segments, of maybe a few minutes each. But it actually feels a lot more balanced than this might suggest, for a few reasons.
Probably the least important reason, though still worth mentioning, is that much of the imagery is of scenes from everyday Amish life. Like the first film, this film is beautifully shot. These attractive and sometimes moving images of Amish families going about daily life do some of the “speaking” for the Amish.
Another, more consequential, reason is that the Amish commentary feels more focused–in each segment the Amish perspective on faith, family, and church order is given, concisely and often powerfully by a male or female Amish speaker.
Finally, the former Amish voices are not unsympathetic to their Amish pasts. They are still drawn to their former communities, and you can tell in many cases appreciate what they have left behind. On more than one occasion they actually articulate a number of positive reasons why someone might wish to remain Amish. For the most part, they don’t seem so much bitter as aware of loss, while resolved to their current paths.
Watch The Amish: Shunned
This is not an academic treatment of shunning, but like the first PBS film on the Amish, there is a strong experiential element. You’re hearing seven people’s highly personal stories, and it goes without saying that people have different experiences.
Of the seven whose stories are featured, it looks like four or five are from a highly conservative, mostly Swartzentruber Amish, background. All things being equal the people from the most traditional Amish backgrounds are probably the ones who are going to have the more vivid and painful experiences, for reasons including a greater gap between cultures and the stricter form of shunning typically practiced in those churches.
To learn more about Amish faith I would still seek information in other sources including reading about it. But I think this film does a very nice job of presenting the general Amish perspective against a collection of former Amish stories, which though they may not represent every former Amish person’s experience, deserve to be heard.
Those stories can be very moving, and in particular the final scene of the film. Even if you find your sympathies, for whatever reason, already lie with one side or the other, I’d definitely watch this film if you get the chance.
The Amish: Shunned – New Preview Clip
We have been given a new preview clip by PBS. In it, an Amish man talks about his time away from the Amish, and both the enticements and drawbacks of life in the city. He also shares the powerful tale of another man’s journey away from and back to his community. The film airs in full on Tuesday, February 4th at 9pm.
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