On October 2, 2006, a 32-year-old milk truck driver named Charles Roberts entered a one-room schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and shot 10 young girls, killing five, before committing suicide as police officers stormed the school. Just hours after the shooting, Amish community members visited the gunman's family to offer forgiveness. The events at Nickel Mines horrified the nation for the senseless brutality of the shootings and left many questioning and haunted by the victims' startling response.
Filmed over the course of a year, American Experience: The Amish answers many questions Americans have about this insular religious community. Their intense faith and strict adherence to 300-year-old traditions have in turn captivated and repelled, awed and irritated, inspired and confused America for more than a century. An extraordinarily intimate portrait of contemporary Amish faith and life, the film questions why and how the Amish, an insistently closed and communal culture, have thrived within one of the most open, individualistic societies on earth.
It also explores how, despite their ingrained submissiveness, the Amish have successfully asserted themselves in resisting the encroachments of modern society and government. What is our fascination with the Amish and what does it say about deep American values? What does the future hold for a community whose existence is so rooted in the past?
With unprecedented access to the Amish built on patience and hard-won trust, the film is the first to deeply penetrate and explore this profoundly attention-averse group. It also includes the first television interview with one of the parents of the murdered schoolgirls. The Amish premieres on American Experience on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 7:00 p.m. on KUED.
"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. "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. We had some key advisors who had worked with the Amish for decades whom they trusted. They reassured them that we were not going to do a superficial drive-by, 'gotcha,' program. We said, 'We really want to understand who you are. And we want your voice to be in this film.'"
While the Amish have been praised for their ability to forgive, they can be unforgiving to some of their own. Shunning, the practice of which split the church hundreds of years ago, is still practiced today and requires the Amish to turn their backs on their own children if they leave the church after being baptized.
In the course of the film, a number of Amish teens talk about the special rite of passage known as Rumspringa. For the first time in their lives, 16-year-olds are allowed to leave their families and hang out with their friends on the weekend. Betwixt and between parental authority and adulthood, previously plainly dressed look-alike teens begin to explore their identity within the tribe. Some teens leave for the wider world but others choose to remain, the bonds of family having been knit into their bones.
Today, there is tremendous pressure on the Amish culture as the outside world continues to encroach on their communities. And they have to find new ways to live with that outside world - or go elsewhere to escape it.
Fifty years ago, nearly all Amish relied on farming for a living. Today, most Amish support themselves by working in Amish-owned small businesses or non-Amish shops and factories. Others have left their homes to pursue wide-open spaces and cheaper land out West.
One Amish worker in an RV factory in northern Indiana wonders what effect working in an "English" factory will have on his community's future. "We're just doing things that we didn't do 25-30 years ago," he says. "And when that happens, you tend to panic a little bit. You have to wonder: Where are we going? What's this going to lead to? Is this what we really want?"
Will the Amish continue to survive despite the pressures they face today?
"I don't know," says one Amish man. "I just don't go there. We're just pilgrims and foreigners, just passing through. This life is just a speck in the sand, compared to eternity."
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