Amish documentary includes local elements

An American Experience documentary about the Amish will likely include footage and some interviews with local residents, including Goshen College History Professor Steve Nolt.

Posted on Feb. 25, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.

A community who generally doesn't own or watch television is the focus of a television documentary airing Tuesday.

“The Amish” is an American Experience documentary scheduled for 8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS stations.

Local viewers may recognize some local contributions to the two-hour film.

Filmmakers interviewed Goshen College History Professor Steven Nolt twice for a total of eight hours. The crew also interviewed several Amish workers at Jayco Inc. and also at other area recreational vehicle factories and shot footage in LaGrange County, according to Abbe Harris, a publicist for the documentary.

According to the documentary's website, the film includes some history about the religious community, as well as Amish beliefs and modern issues, such as occupational changes through the recent years. The film also includes interviews with Amish teens about “rumspringa,” when Amish teens are allowed to experience English life before decided whether to join the Amish church, and with adults who have left the Amish church.

Nolt, who has written several books and papers on the Amish, said he had rejected requests to help with other films about the Amish, but agreed to work on this one because the filmmakers seemed respectful of the Amish way of life.

He said he appreciated that the American Experience crew didn't ask him for contact information for Amish families and were sensitive to the Amish's objections to being filmed or photographed up close.

That respect and sensitivity did bring extra challenges for the filmmakers.

“In our 23 years, with almost 300 films completed, this was the most difficult that we've ever made,” said Mark Samels, executive producer of American Experience, in a press release. “We had a subject that was by its very nature against the idea of us getting close to them and making a film about them. But we cautiously and slowly built bonds of trust within the community.”

A clip from the show on the PBS website also touches on the tourist industry and the general public's fascination with the Amish, stating that more than 250,000 Amish live in the U.S., while nearly 20 million tourists visit Amish communities each year.

“I think that one of the reasons that the Amish are intriguing to modern Americans is simply the fact that they have defied the logic of modernity and have persisted and survived,” Nolt said in an interview with The Elkhart Truth. “It's also the case that tourism and just other general fascination with the Amish suggests longings that Americans have that they project onto Amish people. Sometimes those are environmental concerns, sometimes those are family values concerns, sometimes those are nostalgia.”

He added that “none of those things I think fully line up with what the Amish are about or trying to do.”

Nolt has not seen the final product yet, so is not sure exactly what the film will look like or what from his 8-hours worth of interviews will be included.

He hopes the film brings the “human side to the Amish experience.”

“For people in this area, (I hope) it helps people understand their Amish neighbors as real people,” he said. “I think the documentary will also include some painful stories of some formerly Amish people. It's not a film that tries to glorify the Amish but it's also not an exposé that seeks to expose the Amish or anything. It's trying to, as I understand from talking with the writer and producer, trying to represent a church community that is trying to figure out how to live life in the modern world, even though the way their living that life is not the way many other people are living in the modern world.”

To learn more about the documentary or see clips of the show, visit www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/amish.

Lecture on Amish expansion March 20

The Mennonite Historical Society is hosting a lecture “On the Recent Growth of New Amish Settlements” March 20 at Goshen College.

Ohio State University Professor of Rural Sociology Joseph F. Donnermeyer and doctoral student Cory Anderson will present the lecture at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 20.

The lecture will take place in Goshen College's Newcomer Center Room 19 (handicap parking available).

According to a release from Goshen College about the event, the Old Order Amish population in North America has doubled in size in the past 20 years and, at the same time, have established settlements in nearly 170 new counties.

The lecture will look at the pattern of new Amish settlements and describe the economic, social and religious factors that determine whether or not new communities are likely to be successful, according to the release.

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