A new public-TV documentary at times seems too focused on beautiful images like some carefully designed coffee-table book meant to be admired at a glance but not closely read. But at other moments, particularly in its later sections, the production proves very thought-provoking.
The film is “The Amish,” premiering Tuesday night as part of PBS’ “American Experience” series. It is based in part on research done in Ohio, although it appears that more time is spent with the Amish in Pennsylvania and Indiana.
The Amish, the program notes, now number about 250,000 (spread across 28 states and Canada), but close to 20 million tourists come to see them annually. The seeing is often at a distance — for example, from buses driving past Amish farms, or at carefully designated tourist stops. Close-up photographs are also forbidden by Amish belief; for the PBS program, the Amish interviewed are heard as voiceovers but not shown on camera. The program does include on-camera interviews with former Amish members as well as historians and other experts.
Written and directed by David Belton, the program takes a soft-spoken tone — no narrator, with some information conveyed by onscreen graphics — to better present the tone of Amish life, with its minimal use of modern technology and its emphasis on hard work, usually in farming, and closeness to nature.
The program makes powerful use of the Nickel Mines, Pa., incident in 2006, in which a man entered an Amish school and shot 10 girls, killing five of them before turning a gun on himself. Members of the Amish community, including families of the victims, were quick to forgive the shooter, and some even attended his funeral, because that is what their faith requires. But the Amish can be less forgiving of their own, shunning — cutting off contact with — those who leave the community for the “English” world outside. And the contradictions within the culture do not end there.
Yet the program overall cannot hide its admiration for the Amish, noting the persecution they endured in their earliest years and their defense of their approach to schooling (which ends with the eighth grade) all the way to a successful case before the Supreme Court. As America becomes ever more removed from its farm and small-community foundation, the Amish provide an example of how that could work.
Of course, as the program points out, farming is not the strong underpinning it once was. Many Amish have had to take outside jobs for income. Still others have looked west for more and cheaper land in which to operate. It is not clear how such efforts might change the Amish — or if their faith will sustain them the way it has for centuries.