“Heaven and hell for Amish people are as real as New York and Chicago,” said Lucy Walker, the director of a new documentary that airs tomorrow morning on Cinemax.
“Devil’s Playground” chronicles rumspringa for Amish teenagers—a period normally lasting several years in which the teens are allowed to explore non-Amish culture before deciding whether or not to join the Amish church.
The documentary offers an unprecedented look at Amish culture and the temptations facing its teens during this “running around” phase.
Walker, born and raised in London, first became interested in the Amish after seeing the movie “Witness”—starring Harrison Ford—years ago. She enjoyed the movie, but there was a problem.
“I wasn’t quite sure if the Amish were real,” she said. “I’d never heard of them.”
Later, while working on a master’s degree in literature at Oxford, she visited an Amish quilt exhibit in London. She put the quilt and movie together. “I guess ‘Witness’ was real,” she said.
Questions about the Amish persisted. “I couldn’t understand how these people could preserve their culture while they were surrounded by American culture,” she said. She remained fascinated by why people would choose to be Amish.
She received a Fulbright scholarship to study filmmaking at New York University, and while there she pursued her interest in the Amish.
“Not only did the Amish have a choice about whether to be Amish,” she learned, “but most of them chose it.”
“What is it that brings them back?” That question gripped her and sparked the documentary.
Getting permission to videotape the Amish wasn’t easy, though. It was a long process and patience was the key, Walker said. Having mainly a two-person crew also helped. That was made possible by Walker’s ability to shoot on digital video instead of film, which normally requires more time, equipment and people.
For a while, Walker would approach the Amish, say hello, and they would leave. Some people told Walker she’d have to trick the Amish to get them on camera. But the Amish are honest and up front, she said, and she knew she had to be as well.
Furthermore, each Amish church district makes its own rules, she said. Some districts say photography is a “graven image” and therefore prohibited by the second commandment. Other districts don’t see it that way.
An Amish woodworker interviewed on camera reasoned that he could appear, Walker said, if he was working but not posing. Others said it was okay to appear as long as they didn’t become prideful.
The Amish appearing on camera were in general more progressive. “We’re human too and we wish the tourists would understand that,” they told Walker. So they wanted an opportunity to speak to the “English.”
Walker said she approached the Amish truthfully about her project: She was making a documentary, they might not like it, but she wanted the truth of their experience. She took time and got to know them, which meant that “the camera was in the trunk 95 percent of the time I was in Amish country,” she said.
It was important to know people, for the Amish community is about connections. “I had to win everybody’s trust” before getting to the next person who might help, who might be interested in participating, she said. “And you knew you were popular with the Amish if they stayed up until midnight, because they get up at four in the morning.”
Walker spent two years gathering over 300 hours of footage, much of which she knew would not appear in the final film. The process was necessary, however, for most of the Amish teens hadn’t been around a camera before and were shy at first.
The camera was on so often that the teens soon ignored it. “People relaxed and forgot it was there,” she said.
Some teens started the project but then changed their minds. Even though Walker had made everyone sign a consent form and could legally use the footage, she said she didn’t feel comfortable doing so.
“I felt like it was important in such a close community to maintain trust at all costs,” she said, admitting it was difficult to let some good material go when participants backed out.
But the time and sacrifices paid off because the Amish have “so many different stories,” she said. “It was a world I knew very little about,” partially because not much has been written about the Amish.
“I was very fortunate that we were very warmly received,” she said. “The Amish are wonderful, warm, friendly, helpful, inspiring.”
But a few parents were upset about their children being involved in the documentary, even though the kids were 18 or older.
Walker said one of her subjects asked her to stop by his house one day. When she arrived, his father “actually chased me off the farm with a pitchfork, saying I was doing the devil’s work.”
Parents generally don’t like for their children to have non-Amish friends because it pulls them off the farm and away from the community. And the “priority is for kids to return to the church,” she said.
But that’s why parents tolerate rumspringa. “They’re afraid if they didn’t,” she said, “the children might not come back and be Amish.”
Teenagers in rumspringa are really “betwixt and between” lives. The Amish believe that children are under parental authority until the age of 16. But not until baptism do they come under church authority.
So in this liminal period, youngsters face difficult decisions involving drugs, alcohol and other temptations. But the Amish see these kinds of decisions as important because they precede the big decision of joining the church, which lies at the end of rumspringa.
Walker said she “could never dismiss being Amish.” Even though that way of life was totally different, it was also appealing.
“Some days I’d wake up and want to be Amish,” she said, remembering their healthy relationships, reasonably comfortable lives and anticipation of heaven.
On other days, though, Walker said she’d “see cost of that,” referring to the community that generally devalues, for example, higher education, travel and women working outside the home.
Nevertheless, Walker’s experience yielded a fascinating result, a feat made more impressive by the world she sought to capture—the Amish.
“They build a big old cultural barrier against the outside world” to maintain identity, she said. “You can’t leap over it. You have to get inside it.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
“Devil’s Playground” airs again on Cinemax on Saturday, June 22 at 6:00 a.m. ET.
Also read the review of “Devil’s Playground” on EthicsDaily.com!