Overlooked Doc on Amish Resurfaces

Directed by Lucy Walker
77 mins. PG-13, Documentary
* * * *

Quick. Who throws the wildest parties in Indiana? If you answered “the Amish,” you were either: (a) being glib and got lucky, or (b) among the very few Americans who know about the doctrine known as rumspiga, which is fascinatingly documented in Devil’s Playground. I don’t know how I missed this ten-year-old documentary first time around, but thanks to Netflix I finally got around to seeing it. It remains relevant; in a tradition-bound society such as the Amish that freezes time in the pre-electrical days of the late 17th century, things don’t change very much.

The entire notion of “Amish Gone Wild” would strike most Americans as an oxymoron, but it’s actually quite consistent with Amish theology. The Amish are part of a Reformation tradition known as Anabaptism.  The ana (against) part of that is adult baptism; that is, Anabaptists believe that only informed adults can have conversion experiences—the decision to join (or not join) the church must be a free will decision. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as being “born” Amish.  At the age of 16, each individual raised in an Amish family is cast adrift and is free to live among the “English” (all non-Amish, no matter their actual ethnic background).  This is the rumspiga, the period of decision-making. There is no set time limit as to when one must decide whether to join Amish society or remain among the English (though most do so within three to five years) and during this period one can do as one wishes. Many Amish-raised adolescents do it all: drugs, booze, premarital sex, smoking, surfing the Internet for porn, wild parties… as if they were first-year college students! An Amish party socks in outsiders from miles around—the music booms (from high-end electronics no less!) and only the hormones flow faster than the booze.

The Devil’s Playground follows several Indiana teens through rumspiga, each keenly aware that a decision to join Amish society means that they must leave behind their current path forever. The film is a piece of documentary anthropology, but it plays like a taut drama. You will find yourself rooting for some of the kids to leave the Amish and others—such as a young man busted for drug-dealing and gang behavior—to save themselves and return to the fold. Most youth do return. One of my critiques of the film is that Walker could have explained better why that decision is made. (We can infer that the ways of the English lose their allure.) Another is that Walker doesn’t explain in much detail how kids with only eight years of education and no visible means of support manage to live among the English at all. But, then again, maybe she couldn’t or shouldn’t. (Once one is in the church, being filmed or even seeing a movie is generally off limits.) Give Walker, as an outsider, props for gaining any sort of access into closed Amish society, and kudos to her film for shedding tiny rays of light on the practice of rumspiga.

If you label yourself as a person who doesn’t like documentaries, do yourself a favor and check this out before you close the book on them. I think you’ll agree that there’s more drama and true emotion in this little gem of a doc than in 99% of the big-budget, no-heart pap emanating from that other closed society in our midst: Hollywood.

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