Simple Living: Amish movies sometimes get it right

Our windows into our neighbors’ lives, most of the time, turn out to be TV and computer screens. That’s especially true when our neighbors are part of a religious minority. (Today at, Dr. Wayne Baker writes about the problem YouTube users face with skewed videos about Muslims.)

We asked Dr. Donald Kraybill, co-author of “The Amish Way” and “Amish Grace,” to recommed several worthwhile movies about Amish life. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is Don endorsing every detail in these movies—but he does recommend these three as good, helpful films. We’ve screened all three at ReadTheSpirit—and we agree.


“The Amish: Back Roads to Heaven”
This documentary on DVD is produced by independent filmmakers Burton and Mary Buller, who sell the film directly through their website The Bullers open with a very brief history of the Amish in Europe, but they quickly take us into the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country. The Bullers’ main on-screen experts are Don Kraybill and his co-author Steven M. Nolt, so this is a great chance to actually hear them talking about themes that they explore more fully in “The Amish Way.” Think about watching the documentary before or after you read their book. Given strong resistence among the Amish to appearing on screen, the Bullers show us a remarkable range of family and community life. The “talking heads” of the experts rarely appear on screen. Mostly, we see Amish homes, a worship service, work in fields, care of animals, construction of barns and even some scenes in Amish-owned businesses that produce everything from metal crafts to traditional leather harnesses. Near the end of the documentary, the Bullers added several minutes about the 2006 Nickel Mines shooting. If you’re intrigued by the books from Kraybill and his colleagues—and want to actually see some of what they describe—then you’ll enjoy the Bullers’ DVD.

“Amish Grace:
The inspirational true stor of forgiveness”
If you are curious mainly about the aftermath of the Nickel Mines tragedy, then this Lifetime Movie Network  DVD is a good choice—especially while you’re reading the Kraybill book, “Amish Grace.” Of course, there’s a stark contrast between a documentary like the Bullers’ film and a made-for-TV drama like this—first and foremost because the Bullers agreed to respect Amish guidelines on filming. In their documentary, we don’t see any closeups on individual Amish faces—an Amish requirement to avoid any temptation to vanity. In the Lifetime drama, the camera lingers on these striking faces—an essential element in the Lifetime approach to storytelling. The drama focuses entirely on relationships before and after the tragic killing spree. In fact, “Amish Grace” essentially skips over the crime itself. The film’s power lies in the story of reconciliation after the shooting. Your eyes aren’t likely to remain dry as you watch that first painful visit by the Amish to the family of the shooter—then watch the Amish couples who lost children struggle with their faith’s tough teachings on forgiveness. You can order the Lifetime movie “Amish Grace” on DVD from Amazon now.

Australian filmmaker Peter Weir directed “Witness,” which says a lot about its quality. Weir is responsible for other highly acclaimed movies, incuding “Dead Poets Society,” and is known for telling stories about people who find themselves uncomfortably trying to adjust to new cultures. When Kraybill recommended “Witness,” he said: “There’s a lot of violence in ‘Witness’ and they got some things wrong, but it’s a very sensitive portrayal of Amish life. I do think they got the Amish values right and it’s a very good film.” He’s not alone in that judgment. When the film was released in 1986, it drew eight Oscar nominations (including a directing nomination for Weir) and it eventually won the Oscars in writing and film-editing categories. Critic Roger Ebert called the movie an “electrifying and poignant love story.” Ebert is not an expert on Amish life, but Ebert did make a point of praising the careful attention by Weir and his crew to accuracy in portraying the Amish. The drama unfolds after an Amish woman’s young son witnesses a murder involving corrupt cops—and a good cop, played by Harrison Ford, is forced to hide out in Amish country. You can order Harrison Ford in “Witness” on DVD from Amazon now.

REMEMBER: You also can purchase The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World, by Kraybill and his colleagues at Amazon now.

OR: You may want to order the earlier Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy also available at a discount from Amazon.

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