director Lucy Walker
Unless you live near an Amish community, you probably get your information about them from the media. Popular cultural depictions of the Amish seem to have started with Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness. And the strange fascination with them, largely as points of humor or religious outre-ness, is not uncommon.
Lucy Walker’s 2002 documentary deals with the point that Amish kids hit at age 16 called rumspringa, in which young people are allowed to explore the world outside, usually over a time of a couple of years, before returning to their Amish villages and becoming baptized in their faith and lifelong commitment.
Unsurprisingly, kids brought up in such a highly restrictive society tend to go particularly crazy when allowed to party, have sex, smoke, drive, wear normal clothes, have technology, all the trappings of the modern world that the Amish shun. It’s an interesting contrast, that a culture that is so restrictive has this open release option for young people (and that according to the documentary’s statistics that 90% return to the fold.) In some ways, it’s more open-minded than other sects and denominations that are not so outwardly conservative.
The film gives a reasonable amount of information but there are so many questions. The Amish of, say, Witness, had none of the technology that even the regular farmers and workers seem to have. It’s hardly as much deprivation as some depictions would seem to show. Do inroads already exist that allow for technologies like cell phones and cars in certain circumstances?
The Amish, to me, seem somewhat arbitrary in their cut-off with modern machinery. It seems to be more of a historical circumstance than a logical one or a specifically indoctrinated one. It must be said that the elders interviewed in the film don’t make particularly compelling arguments on these topics. To me, it shares a kinship with certain interpretations of Islam or Judaism, ones whose readings, close as they might be, want to ground the religion in the time and culture of its origin.
What struck me in watching Devil’s Playground was how odd and culturally traumatizing this cultural deprivation is for the teens. Taken out of their circumstances they are drawn powerfully to the pop culture shared by kids their own age in time, yearn for things that on the outside would be considered “normal”. What is the argument to perpetuate their shunning of modernity when it is doubtlessly encroaching upon them more and more all the time? Is the Amish world in more crisis now than ever before?
Who knows? The film doesn’t really explore that and is now 15 years old. It’s still an interesting peek into a curious culture. And probably a tad more legit than Amish Mafia.