DAVID BIANCULLI

Founder / Editor

ERIC GOULD

Associate Editor

LINDA DONOVAN

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MIKE HUGHES

GARY EDGERTON

ROGER CATLIN

KIM AKASS

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MONIQUE NAZARETH

TOM BRINKMOELLER

NOEL HOLSTON

 
 
 
 
 
PBS 'American Experience: The Amish' Is a Wonderful Documentary, Pure and Simple
February 28, 2012  | By David Bianculli
 
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The opening moments of The Amish, Tuesday's new two-hour American Experiencedocumentary on PBS, are brilliant, and beautiful, in their unyielding sparseness. You see a farmstead, and a countryside, at dawn. All is quiet -- including the soundtrack, which provides no complementary music to open the program. Just the sounds of silence, and the sights of quiet isolation.

amish-winter-12-F28.jpgIt's eerie. It's beautiful. It's mysterious. And for the next two hours of The Amish (8 p.m. ET; check local listings), writer-director David Belton explores and explains those mysteries, in ways as varied as they are respectful...

The study begins at a distance -- understandable, because the Amish do not want to be photographed in close-up, and are wary of the non-Amish, whom they call "English." And very quickly, we get the basic history: How the Amish grew out of the Protestant Reformation of 1517, were persecuted and burned at the stake for their belief in adult baptism, and now exist only in rural enclaves in the U.S. and Canada.

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But filmmaker Belton finds many other ways of telling his story, and finds many other stories to tell. Amish, both current residents and shunned former members, are heard on tape recordings, explaining their respective perspectives in intimate, honest ways.

"When a man is working the soil," says one farmer, "that's as close to God as he can get."

"We don't get attached to the things of this world," explains one woman.

One man, rather than lamenting the absence of a nearby Wal-Mart, boasts, "Think of all the aisles I don't have to walk down in the department store... To me, that's liberation."

And a teenager, confronting the prospect of leaving home for her own family and life, is wary, admitting, "I think 14 miles is a long way from home. "

What starts as a simple sociological study shifts suddenly, and lurchingly, about 40 minutes in, as it addresses the horrible 2006 massacre at Nickel Mines, PA, where a gunman took over a one-room Amish schoolhouse, let the boys go, and shot all 10 Amish girls -- five of them fatally.

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The documentary lets us hear, on the soundtrack, the voice of one member of that community, explaining his decision to attend the funeral of the gunman, who killed himself at the scene -- not to taste vengeance, but to seek understanding.

Eventually, we get to go inside the Amish barns, touch base at one of the youth's infamous rumspringas (explorations of freedom, just before deciding whether to commit to the Amish life),
and hear the inner thoughts, fears, dreams and convictions of a very private people.

If the Amish watched television, and saw this, they'd have very little about which to object.

 
 
 
 
 
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