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October 08, 2003

"The Devil's Playground"

Friedrich --

A quick note to alert you to an interesting small movie. You know the way that a documentary that has got hold of a great subject can fascinate even when the movie itself is no better than passable? The Wife and I just watched an example of this: Lucy Walker's The Devil's Playground. It's about Amish teenagers, who we learn aren't baptized into the faith as children. Instead, at 16, they're set free to leave the community if they want to, and to sow some wild oats. It's a rite of passage the Amish call Rumspringa; the idea is that people should be able to choose on their own, and in full consciousness, whether or not to join the Amish church and community.

Lucy Walker follows the adventures and fortunes of about a half-a-dozen Amish kids as they dip their toes into the world of what they call "the English," ie., the rest of America. Some presumably stay near home, but some go hogwild. The movie spends most of its time with these kids, who smoke, drink, and hang at the mall. Many seem to love videogames, cars and cellphones. Walker's main subject, a gaunt teen named Faron, becomes a drug addict and a dealer.

The boys seem to take instantly to MTV-and-rap-style fashions and behaviors, while the girls generally act out more cautiously and continue wearing Amish clothes. But kids of both sexes are ardent partyers. When word about an Amish-kid party starts to spread, look out. Amish kids show up from all over -- and then more of them, and then more, until there's hundreds of Amish kids out in the cornfields, smokin', chuggin' brewskis, cruisin' each other, doin' the whole heavy-metal, head-bangin' thing.

I often feel a lot of sympathy for makers of small documentaries like this one. It can't be easy. You find a subject, you cobble together whatever time, money, contacts and equipment you can, you work really hard ... and then have to face the crapshoot factor. You pick a bunch of people to focus on and hope like hell that something interesting happens to a few of them. Or even one of them. Walker didn't have the greatest luck in this department. Faron kicks drugs, gets dumped by a girlfriend, goes home to live, works for his dad, misbehaves some more ... He's a lost kid hoping he's got a destiny somewhere, in other words -- an interesting case history but, as it turns out, not a galvanizing figure to hang a movie on.

So it's the footage, the lore and information, and the interviews that carry you through the film. Walker's no technical genius but she does OK, and deserves credit for lots of things. She got access to this world, which can't have been easy in itself. And she's open and fair with her material. She shows both the attractions of the Amish world (where there's always a place for you) and its chore-ridden dullness too. She lets you admire the Amish for giving their kids the chance to make their own decisions about their faith, but she also lets you notice how rigged the Amish have made the game. You find yourself rooting for the kids to join the larger world, but at other times you remember how lonely and lost life can get out here.

One very touching girl committed the ultimate sin. After doing her Rumspringa time, she returned to the faith and joined the church -- but then decided she'd made a mistake and left again. If you do this -- if you leave the faith after being baptized -- you're cut off and shunned. Amish-wise, you're finito, you're persona non grata, etc. It's perfectly clear what a price this girl is paying for her decision. Amish kids aren't educated beyond the 8th grade, so she doesn't have the greatest preparation for life among the English; she doesn't seem to have the instincts for it either. (Many of these fair-haired, doe-eyed Amish kids look sweet-natured, but about as dumb as barnyard animals.) This girl talks about having been depressed, and about how she now feels excited and optimistic -- but despite what she says, she seems forever on the verge of tears. You wish her well while feeling lots of apprehension.

At 70-odd minutes, "The Devil's Playground" is anything but a hard sit. You learn a lot; you marvel at teens and religions; you meditate for a few minutes on community, family and pop culture. Your mind opens a bit. No need to search theater listings for the movie, by the way; the Wife and I found a DVD of it at Blockbuster.

Did I tell you, by the way, about a recent encounter we had with some Mennonites? We were in the town of Corning in western New York state, touring the Corning Glass Works. For some reason, small crowds of Mennonites were touring the place that day too. And, good lord if they didn't smell like overripe herds of cattle. Being near them was almost unbearable. You wanted to take them outside and hose them down, preferably with Clorox. Sad to say, but being near them did more than a little damage to my memory of that romantic dancin'-in-the-headlights scene between Kelly McGillis and Harrison Ford in "Witness" ...

I notice that Tyler Cowen (here) got fascinated by "The Devil's Playground" too.



posted by Michael at October 8, 2003


The Amish culture is interesting. My parents have some Amish friends that we visited regularly, and that my brother stayed with over the summer. For the most part, I admire their work ethic.

Posted by: courtney on October 8, 2003 10:08 PM

Ever heard the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz's "Mennonite Surf Party"? Amish people with VCRs and a shitty attitude, he says.

Posted by: Michael Snider on October 8, 2003 10:48 PM

Never confuse Amish with Mennonites. They're very different sects.

But they both make terrific pies and preserves, and sell them pretty cheap. The major difference: Some Mennonites will take credit cards; Amish only accept cash.

BTW, not all Mennonites smell like cows -- just the ones who live on farms with a lot of livestock. Regardless of who you are, if you live on a farm with livestock (esp. a dairy farm), chances are very good you will smell like a cow. It's like cigarette smoke, only kind of good for you.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 9, 2003 2:41 AM

Someone better alert the filmmaker to the diff between the Amish and the Mennonites. The film includes a number of montage-flurries (faces, carriages, churches, etc), and in nearly every one of them are images of Mennonite churches. And this in a movie explicitly about the Amish. The nerve!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 9, 2003 10:56 AM

We have a lot of Old Order Amish living around where I live. They ARE very interesting. And Tim is right, they do make dynamite baked goods--especially egg noodles. However, they are often harrassed by the locals because they tend to keep to themselves and they do not send their kids to the local schools--ie. schools lose funding they get from the Feds because thier enrollment goes down.

They also place a high value on community which is usually kept within thier own but in times of dire need--tornado's or massive needs for blood they will come as a group and donate time or resources to total strangers. A tornado devestated the little town where my kids go to school some years back and the Amish came and helped rebuild barns, clear the fields of debris and rubble and get the roads free from trees and brush. No one asked, they just showed up.

I tend to have a lot of respect for someone who lives thier beliefs in a world where it is easy to toss tradition to the wayside.

Posted by: Deb on October 9, 2003 11:33 AM

Tim, I just think it's a great song. I'm aware that Mennonites & Amish are very different, and so is the Rev. Billy, who's said of himself "Ya know, there was just a need at the time for a six-foot-five, heavily tattooed guy in a nurse's dress to sing songs about surfing Mennonites and mentally masturbating while watching Marcia Brady."

I don't have much respect for a people whose beliefs include depriving children of any chance to learn useful skills outside their narrow community--which is the only reason that community has survived in its present form. The Rumspringa's a rigged game these days, though it may not have been before the Western world became predominantly urban.

Posted by: Mike Snider on October 9, 2003 12:33 PM


I am not sure I see the Amish method of raising children and educating them as deprivation. They are given as complete an education as necessary for their community--something our own schools seem to fail miserably at. How much more deprived is an Amish kid with an 8th grade education than a black male kid with a 4th grade reading level when he graduates from high school.
That they reject our modern culture and living styles doesnt make them any less involved in the well being of their kids. If they are teaching their kids the value of one lifestyle, cant that also be said of the rest of us.

Posted by: Deb on October 9, 2003 5:40 PM

I don't think it's a rigged game at all. They have skills which are highly valuable. Woodworking, for instance. Do you have any idea how much Amish furniture sells for?! There's always a need for good cleaning ladies. My parents' friends owned a greenhouse, which could easily be a non-Amish operation, and did very well. Any of their 11 kids could have moved on to run their own, private greenhouse. Granted, they're not "usual" skills, but they're valuable all the same. And, these kids are free to continue reading and further their education during the Rumspringa.

Posted by: courtney on October 9, 2003 6:20 PM

I tend to find the Rumspringa a "rigged game," too. I'd have much more respect for the Amish and their beliefs if they allowed their children to get a high school education. And all those black buggies on the roads are a genuine hazard.

Here's a poem by John Updike called "The Amish":

The Amish are a surly sect.
They paint their bulging barns with hex
Designs, pronounce a dialect
Of Deutsch, inbreed, and wink at sex.

They have no use for buttons, tea,
Life insurance, cigarettes,
Churches, liquor, Sea & Ski,
Public power, or regrets.

Believing motors undivine,
They bob behind a buggied horse
From Paradise to Brandywine,
From Bird-in-Hand to Intercourse.

They think the Devil drives a car
And wish Jehovah would revoke
The licensed fools who travel far
To gaze upon these simple folk.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 10, 2003 12:28 AM

"I notice that Tyler Cowen (here) got fascinated by "The Devil's Playground" too."

Two days later, I'm still stunned that you wrote GOT instead of was or is. You hurt my eyes.

Posted by: j.c. on October 10, 2003 2:10 PM

It may be an ugly verb, but at least it's an active one.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 10, 2003 2:28 PM

Reminds me of an incident this week. I was on the highway, headed to work, in the fast lane (third, far left), and a Mennonite? Amish? Don't know, but was one of the two (unless there's a third) -- he, the driver, in his hat and beard, and three women companions, in their "prairie dresses" and head gear --- And that man RODE MY ARSE outta the fast lane in his Buick, musta been toppin' 80 mph.

I gave 'em the benefit of the doubt -- mighta been headed to an emergency room.

Posted by: cj on October 11, 2003 2:31 AM

If he was driving a car and not a black buggy, he was probably Mennonite, not Amish. If the women were wearing little white mesh caps and not gigantic black bonnets, they were Mennonite and not Amish. Usually, when Amish people "convert" and leave the faith, they become Mennonites.

Oddly enough, many Mennonite congregations are genuinely Gay-friendly; Gay and Lesbian Mennonites have an easier time reconciling sexuality and spirituality than most of their mainline Christian counterparts. Those Mennonites may seem "quaint" to untrained eyes, but they're way more progressive than Southern Baptists.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 12, 2003 9:26 AM

It may be an ugly verb, but at least it's an active one.

Yes, but it's in a passive sentence. Active verbs belong in active sentences, passive verbs in passive ones.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 12, 2003 9:30 AM

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