[Photo by Hugo Tillman]
The Devil's Playground
A Film by Lucy Walker
Teenagers stream in and reach for bottles of beer with both hands while a deafening band tries AC/DC covers with two chords. The alcohol leads to cocaine and the party hits a fever pitch before boys and girls begin to pair off for the night. This could be a typical high school get-together if it were not for one striking characteristic:
These kids are Amish.
Half the vehicles parked outside are horse-and-buggies, the girls are wearing bonnets, and just before dawn, while the party still rages in the barn, the parents and pre-teen siblings will set to milking the cows. They'll even smile as they offer a pail for their teen's guest to throw up in.
The Amish are Anabaptists, which means that they don't baptize babies at birth, preferring their adherents to join the church when they are old enough to make an informed decision about committing to the religion for life. Therefore when each child turns 16 they can experience the outside "english" world with all its temptations -"the devil's playground" - in order to make their decision.
This period in their life is known in their Pennsylvania Dutch language as rumspringa, which literally translates as "running around". It ends whenever an individual feels ready - typically between the ages of 18-22 - to make the decision that will determine the rest of their lives. Do they join the church and commit to being Amish for the rest of their lives, or do they turn their backs on their families and religion and live on their own in "modern" society?
"God talks to me in one ear, Satan in the other. Part of me wants to be my like my parents, but the other part wants the jeans, the haircut, to do what I want to do" (Velda Lehman, age 18)
If they choose to be Amish, they must give up all their "english" privileges - selling their cars and radios and jeans to their younger siblings, and submitting without question to Amish regulations for the rest of their lives. The Amish do not tolerate homosexuality, the men must work as farmers or doing manual labor, while women do not work outside the home and bear as many children as physically possible (the average is more than eight). Cars, electricity, TV, movies, telephones, sports, education beyond eighth grade, music and musical instruments are all banned. All but the most liberal settlements don't even allow bicycles because they make travel too easy and enjoyable. Women are never allowed to cut their hair - not even to trim a lifetime's worth of split-ends. It is shocking to note that the Taliban's regulations and the Amish ordnung, or rulebook, have startling similarities - although of course the Amish, unlike the Taliban, are serene and pacifist. There is a great deal of love, support, certainty, direction and wisdom to gain by submitting to the ordnung.
The alternative is to make their own way outside the community. But while the freedom of the outside world is intoxicating, striking out is no mean feat when they know so few "english" people and their one-room-schoolhouse education stopped at eighth grade. Eventually 85-90% of Amish youth will choose to be Amish - the highest retention rate since the founding of the Amish church in 1693.
Although previous generations have all survived this rite of passage, rumspringa is rapidly becoming overwhelming. Many teens rebel and face similar choices, but the Amish have no preparation and more at stake. Amish kids are raised with the strictest discipline and without modern conveniences - not even buttons. But on their sixteenth birthday the rules cease to apply. They're not expected home all weekend long. In 1999, two Pennsylvania Amish teens were imprisoned for dealing millions of dollars worth of cocaine. This well-publicized case is forcing Amish parents to question the wisdom of turning their eighteenth-century kids loose in twenty-first century America.
The film follows a handful of Amish teens through their rumspringa. At first they hurl themselves into the worst indulgences of American teen life. But it is not long before we see the opposite forces exert themselves: family expectations, religious convictions, the appeal of the strong community and simple life, and terror of the consequences of their hellbent antics.
The film follows these characters as their teenage bodies become a battleground for their souls. When Gerald Yutzy turns 16 all he wants to do is party, but guilt and dissatisfaction set in fast, along with the fear that if he dies before joining church then the price of a few wild weekends in a trailer will be eternity in hell. Joann Hochstetler's rumspringa of alcoholism, promiscuity, and loneliness sends her hurtling back to the Amish filled with religious inspiration Velda Bontrager tries to leave the church a month before her wedding. As her story unfolds - from suicide attempts through being shunned and eventually to college - we see that hard as it is to not join the Amish church, it is almost impossible to leave again if you do.
Our focus is rumsrpinga casualty Faron Yoder. When we meet him he is trying to quit using "crank" - aka crystal methamphetamine - to become a preacher like his father. But his addiction spirals and leads to dealing, until he's busted and must choose whether to accept his punishment and go to jail for life, or to turn police informant and join the church for life. Scarcely surviving that, he falls in love with an Amish girl - beautiful Emma Miller, age 16. But she decides to move to Florida, and once more he faces the dilemma of which life to choose. To be American or to be Amish. To be a free individual without a community, or to be a part of a strong community without an individual identity.
DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND is an ambitious documentary that offers a unique experience inside an American subculture that has scarcely been captured on film. These teenagers are not subject to Amish rules, including their restrictions on being photographed, and so they have dared to share their world with us. A handful of elders from more liberal Amish communities, perturbed by rumspringa, also agreed to be filmed. The film revolutionizes our understanding of this extraordinary community, and, in our own age of the Columbine massacre, sheds light on how all the rest of us come of age.
Notes on Completing
by Lucy Walker
I first came across the Amish while watching WITNESS in 1985. I was fascinated, but I wasn't sure how much was real. Cut to Oxford, 1991. I was writing about cultural theory when I heard about an exhibition of Amish quilts. I was less interested by the quilts than by all the questions they raised about unique artistic expression and established craft traditions, innovation versus constraint, community as opposed to individuality. There was such creativity in the permutations of ordained patterns, and such appeal in a group of women working on one quilt together. But at what cost? I couldn't believe that the American women who made these quilts still fastened their dresses with pins.
A few years later in New York I met Daniel Kern and his stepmother who had been raised Mennonite -the church most closely related to the Amish - and I became fascinated with the Amish coming-of-age known as rumspringa. This fascination meant that as soon as I was introduced to the producers I volunteered to drop out of my life and head to Amish country for as long as it would take to make DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND.
At that point nobody was convinced that the film could actually be made, that we'd get access to any actual Amish people. But I was happy to set everything aside to try. I was fascinated by the decision that these young people faced - "to be or not to be Amish", as Faron put it - and what a radical spin it put on their teen years. I wanted to know how the Amish saw America and how I'd see the Amish. Maybe I related to the kids' predicament because I left England on my own at 22 and I'm still wondering if I belong anywhere, and because I'd had my own version of rumspringa with a period of experimentation that began when I was 16. And I loved hanging out with and filming teenagers, whose hopes and vulnerabilities are so tender and visible, and whose lives change shape so fast.
Daniel Kern was the obvious choice for DP, but it was clear that a film crew wouldn't work in Amish country. So we set out for Pennsylvania as just Lucy and Dan, in my little sister's car, with a handycam-sized DVCam PD100, as low-key and unintimidating as we could be. I don't think this film could have been made before miniDV - or cellphones.
The Amish generally condemn photography for fostering pride and generating "graven images" which the first commandment prohibits. But many people enjoyed being filmed so long as they weren't "posing" for the camera. And "posing" for interviews was tolerated among the Beachy Amish congregations and in some more liberal Old Order church districts. But the goal was real access to teenagers, and that turned out to be a challenge.
During rumspringa Amish young people aren't subject to Amish rules, but Amish parenting "breaks the will" of the child and they've been trained to keep their heads down, humble and invisible, in the middle of the crowd. Amish teenagers are also drastically less articulate than their "english" counterparts. English is their second language, there's no time for introspection, personal opinions are avoided, and analytical reasoning is suppressed. Of the few kids who would talk to us, very few wanted to be filmed, and fewer still could discuss themselves or their religion.
I resigned myself to a long-haul "needle-in-the-haystack" approach. But the Lancaster County settlement was especially closed and wary after a widely publicized drug scandal in 1998, so we continued the search in Indiana, where Daniel's step-mom had some distant Amish relatives. We finally found Velda when Daniel's step-mom's great-uncle's second cousin the bishop's son-in-law's boss was friends with a pastor who suggested we meet a new member of his congregation who had quite a story about rumspringa…Velda.
Each one of those introductions took days of visits and discussions. We had to earn trust every step of the way. Even with the teenagers it was crucial that I knew and respected Christian principles. It helped to refer to parables to explain our work. I spent a lot of time reading the Bible. It wasn't filmmaking, but it was what it took to make this film.
Some 100-hour-weeks we scarcely got the camera out of the trunk. We weren't allowed to film any of the best scenes that we witnessed. It was the least efficient filmmaking imaginable, but it was a real pleasure to spend time with some Amish people. Pretty soon strangers knew our names and invited us for supper or hymn-singing. I am conscious of what a privilege it's been to be received into such a closed group. I have enchanting memories of long farmhouse suppers, milking cows and dodging stinky duck houses, charmed summer evenings chatting out in the field as dusk fell and the stars came out. I knew they were enjoying us if they talked until midnight when they had to get up at four. I couldn't film but I listened and learned and this led to and informed everything that I filmed later.
One night at a hoe-down I spotted Faron. He stood out from the crowd with his Tupac swagger and twang. The next day we met up again, and he was mesmerizing. I didn't immediately catch on that he was high. Other kids were hesitant to describe what they ate for breakfast, whereas Faron not only divvied up drugs on camera but shamelessly skimmed his dealer's cut too. He had an "english" girlfriend and an escalating habit. But his ambition was to follow in his father's footsteps and be a minister. He could explain aspects of the religion that completely stumped everyone else. And he told everyone that he was "joining church" in the fall.
My heart went out to him. He was being torn in two. And he was going to let me film it happen. Then when a loud truck went by during our first interview, he paused and started over like a pro. He was a natural. That night I e-mailed Steven that I had found our star.
But as we grew suspicious that Faron was wearing a wire, everyone else grew suspicious that Daniel and I were the undercover cops, using filming as a cover story to gather evidence. Kids threw stones at us yelling, "I smell bacon". I felt like I'd gone for WITNESS but wound up with RUSH -a movie which ends, in case you haven't seen it, with the narc shot dead through a trailer window. We were followed, pulled over by the cops, and thoroughly spooked. We returned to New York, made a 5-minute showreel, sold the film to Channel 4 and Winstar, and kept shooting.
Another low point came a year later, when Faron crashed his (uninsured) car the day after arriving in Florida. Daniel was in the passenger seat and he had taken the hit, suffering bad whiplash injuries. Faron got talking to the valet parking guys while he waited for Daniel to be treated. And so Faron got a job as a parking valet, and I took over the job of DP, which Daniel vacated to recuperate. The crash was the bloodiest, but every step has been a hurdle. The last three years have felt like an assault course.
What has sustained me is that the experience keeps generating more questions. I still can't make up my mind. Sometimes it occurs to me that being Amish should be illegal. Learning that an emaciated 42-year-old woman I knew was anorexic because it was her only means of birth control and after 8 children she couldn't face any more. Listening to yet another boy describe how desperately he begged his parents to let him go on through high school and how much he loathed his factory job. Meeting a gay man whose Amish teen years had been a living hell of chastising himself and praying to be released from his "affliction", which the Amish consider so sinful that they won't even acknowledge it.
But other times I still fantasize about giving it all up to be an Amish farmwife with sixteen kids. If you ask an Amish person you'll find out that heaven and hell are as real as New York and Los Angeles. One magic hour, sitting on the porch drinking lemonade with an old Amish couple, I was moved to tears by the love and peace and grace of their lives - free from clutter, no question as to how to live, eternity sewn up, surrounded by children and a community guaranteed to lavish love and care until the end of their days. The "english" world was ugly when I returned.
But here's some bad news. Since we wrapped filming Faron got tired of trying to get by in Florida. The valet job didn't make enough in the off-season, and by then he was trying to sell $1500 vacuum cleaners door-to-door on commission which - unsurprisingly - didn't pay. Even Faron, smart as he is, is not equipped to succeed outside the Amish community. He left Emma and moved back to Indiana, succumbing to incessant pressure from his parents and the lure of a lucrative job with his dad. And it wasn't long before his parents turned him in for possession of a loaded gun and drugs paraphernalia. I submitted the film as part of his defense case and he got off lightly, two years jail and five years probation. He's happy because it's in a work-release program, so he'll be leaving jail for eight hours to work on an RV production line. Emma cried because he's happy to be in jail, she's afraid that he's given up hope. I was constantly struggling to balance the urge to help ward off the disasters with the job of standing back to document the disasters. I wish I'd helped him avoid this.
I'm ambivalent about having documented a community that didn't want to be documented. One of the Bible passages often quoted by the Amish is 2 Corinthians 6:14: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness…"
Filming the Amish is a painfully unequal yoke and I'm relieved to stop. And I wanted to promote understanding but I didn't want to ensnare people in worldly media when their life's work is to remove themselves from it. But when I think about kids as bright as Faron winding up in jail on such grave charges, all this work is warranted.