Leaders of many churches have exhorted the faithful to simplify their lives as they focus on what is truly important in life. In no religion is that devotion to simplicity more profound than in the Amish.
The PBS documentary “The Amish,” airing at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, on KUED Ch. 7, is an exhaustive study of the religious group of about 250,000 adherents who are centered in the northeastern states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, as well as Canada. The filmmakers were granted unprecedented access to film the program, and an overreach to tell the church’s entire story is abundantly evident.
“The Amish” begins intriguingly. Because the Amish generally don’t allow close-up photography or filming, the camera is initially turned on some of the 20 million tourists who visit Amish communities each year. The casually dressed visitors, eager to take vacation snapshots, offer a sharp contrast to the austerely attired, attention-averse subjects of the documentary.
But as Mark Samuels, executive producer of the PBS American Experience series, explains, “We cautiously and slowly built bonds of trust within the community” and were able to assure that the result would not be “a superficial drive-by, ‘gotcha’ program.”
There are no on-air interviews from the Amish, but voiceover recordings form the most interesting aspect of the documentary.
“We are pilgrims passing through this world on the way to an eternal world,” we hear one church member relate. “We do not get attached to this world or the things of this world.”
“We desire to raise sons and daughters to the Lord,” another voice is heard.
There is a poeticism to their clearly stated beliefs that the filmmakers frame with lush photography of Amish daily life — milking cows, working the land and communal living in the beautiful countryside. Intermixed are on-camera interviews with anthropologists and other academics who lend their insights into the Amish culture. One of these learned scholars feels that it is revealing to share, “Theirs is not an intellectual faith; it’s a lived faith in a very real way. Everything they do is guided by their beliefs.”
There is also an expressed amazement of the Amish belief that baptism should not be considered for infants, that individuals should only join a church following a freely stated desire.
“The Amish” shows intent to explain the church, but there’s also a cold analysis without appreciation for the dedication of its believers.
The documentary takes on odd turn when it recalls the October 2006 shooting of 10 young girls in a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pa. The senseless act of violence, which ended when the gunman took his own life, gripped the nation, along with reports of the immediate Amish response of forgiveness. But the details are so explicit that it becomes sensationalism.
There is also too much time spent reviewing the Amish struggles with law enforcement agencies about building codes that would require modern-day inventions such as smoke detectors and other disputes. Many of these tussles were solved as authorities understood that to the Amish, relying on man-made technology is not putting faith in God.
At the end of the two-hour documentary, this viewer so clearly saw 45 minutes that could have been excised by a judicious editor to make “The Amish” a more rewarding program. Viewers are also left to wonder how their own religion or beliefs would be summarized by an outside spectator.
The religious beliefs of the Amish don’t make it easy for them to widely broadcast their doctrine, and the conclusion drawn from the documentary is that the best method to understand a religion is through listening directly to its followers.