The Amish are an American Christian (protestant) group with about 200,000 members who descended from European Anabaptist who migrated to the USA over two hundred years ago to escape persecution in Europe. The first Amish settled in Pennsylvania in 1730 and that state still houses the largest Amish communities in the country. They are best known for staying true to their 19th century way of life, living today just as they did when they arrived in the country and avoiding many modern technologies including telephones and cars.
They remain one of the most mysterious and fascinating groups of people in America, and until relatively recently documentaries about the Amish people were scarce. Allowing yourself to be filmed is against the strict Amish code and can result in those participating being shunned from their communities, excommunication is in fact the theme of many of the documentaries which have been made. Below we list some of the very best documentaries about Amish life, all of them can be watched for free here on Documentary Vine.
An excellent feature length 2012 PBS documentary directed by British film maker David Belton which was filmed over the period of a year, it is a comprehensive look at the way that the Amish live their lives in the 21st century and it explores all facets of Amish life including Ordnung (the strict set of rules that the Amish live by), Rumpspringa (the rite of passage during adolescence), and excommunication (those who are shunned by their communities, usually for breaking rules). The documentary includes contributions from current Amish people and those who have left their community or the faith, either through choice or by excommunication. All of the Amish who featured in the film did so with the risk of being banished from their community. Watch here.
A feature length 2014 documentary which explores the lives of seven individuals who have been excommunicated from their Amish communities for not adhering to the strict rules and have had to adapt to life without their usual support network. The individuals are interviewed extensively about their experiences being shunned by their friends and families for breaking rules and conventions, and the challenges they have faced since trying to live an independent life. Despite having already been excommunicated many of those interviewed don’t show their faces on camera due to an Amish rule against showing faces on television, and they are all to some extent still living life like they are still Amish people but are slowly adopting non-Amish ways. Watch here.
A BBC documentary from 2009 focusing on two men, Ephraim Stoltzfus and his brother Jesse Stoltzfus, who are beginning to question their way of life and some of the strict rules that they are forced to abide by, both men have rebelled against some of those rules (including of course allowing the BBC to film them for television as Amish people are not permitted to appear in front of camera). The brothers, and their wives and children, face excommunication and losing all contact with their friends and relatives. Ephraim Stoltzfus, one of the men, had fallen out with Amish bishops after questioning the rule that Amish people can only read the bible in German when so few can actually read or write in German – he believed that they should be permitted to read the bible in English. Watch here.
Two years later the BBC aired a follow up documentary to Trouble in Paradise which showed the viewer how Ephraim Stoltzfus and his brother Jesse Stoltzfus had got on in attempting to adapt to a life of modernity outside of their Amish community after they had decided to leave the Lancaster Amish after challenging some Amish rules and beliefs and falling foul of the bishops, it is said that 50 families a year are leaving Lancaster. Both of the couples retained their faith in god and didn’t move very far away from their communities, although both couples did make some changes to their lives which would not have been permitted whilst they were living as Amish people (the documentary shows them going car shopping, for example). Watch here.
A one hour long BBC documentary from the BBC which gives an insight into the life of an Amish family from the Old Order community in Pennsylvania. The filmmakers are granted rare access into the private lives of one six member family consisting of Miriam and David Lapp and their four young children. The family were risking excommunication for daring to agree to be filmed for television because there are strict rules against the use of technology and showing your face on camera. A few Amish friends of the Lapp’s also appear on film despite still being part of their community, and the overarching theme of the film is that many younger Amish people believe that the church should become less strict and embrace some aspects of modern life. Watch here.
A 2007 documentary about the West Nickels Mines shooting, an incident which involved a lone shooter named Charles Carl Roberts IV taking ten young Amish schoolgirls hostage in a one room schoolhouse in an Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He shot eight of the schoolgirls, five of whom died from their injuries but three surviving after being shot, and then used his gun to kill himself. His motives for the killings were never made particularly clear and he had never himself been a member of the Amish community, although his suicide made reference to anger that he felt towards god. The small Amish community shocked America when they expressed forgiveness towards the killer, in line with their traditional Christian beliefs. The schoolhouse was later torn down and a new one erected. Watch here.
The Amish: A People of Preservation is the earliest documentary on this list, having been produced in 2000, and can probably be considered a ‘trailblazer’ for the various documentaries that followed. It was directed by the historian and author John L. Ruth, a leading expert in the history of Anabaptist religions and is himself a Mennonite, and it looks into the day to day lives of the Amish and how they live without any modern conveniences. Some of the footage used appears to be much older than the film itself, and is mostly filmed from a distance. Whilst not the most insightful documentary in this list it needs to be respected as the most groundbreaking and the one which set the benchmark due to being the oldest. Watch here.
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