Making a documentary about the Amish wasn’t easy. For one — and it’s a big one — the group forbids TV and has a moral taboo against posing for photos. Nonetheless, the project of documenting the simple-living, modernity-rejecting religious community has tempted plenty of film directors along the way. And they often turn to Amish expert (and Johns Hopkins University Press author/editor) Donald Kraybill for help. “[In the past,] I have always refused,” Kraybill says. “For me to go into the Amish community and try to persuade my Amish friends to violate one of the religious norms of their community would not only scar my personal relationship with them but could result in them being punished by the church.”
So when the directors of the PBS series American Experience approached him with the same old request — help us get access, please! — Kraybill gave his standard answer. Until the documentarians came up with a novel (and respectful) solution to the problem: they would record the voices of the Amish off-camera, but would refrain from filming anyone. In all, with Kraybill’s help, the documentary includes the voices of some 20 Amish people narrating the story of their communities — an unprecedented peek into a fascinating and insular group.
Kraybill served as program consultant on the film, which means he helped build connections, proposed stories, found information, checked facts, and critiqued a rough cut of the film. But, as he notes, “I offered ideas and made suggestions, but the director of the film controlled the content. Even a documentary, in the end, is an artistic interpretation of the subject. Only certain Amish stories were selected from dozens of possibilities.” (For those wanting a nuanced and thorough take on the Amish, an exploration of Kraybill’s books with the Johns Hopkins University Press would be a good start.)
The documentary is set to air later this month.