The Amish: Shunned review: outside looking back in
A poignant documentary about those who have been cast out of their culture and coping with a larger society for which they are unprepared.
I’m “biast” (pro):
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Could you leave behind a life you weren’t happy in, even if it meant never seeing your family again? Even if it meant you thought you were going to burn in hell for it? This is the dilemma that Amish who abandon the plain life and move to the larger culture face, and it is depicted with delicacy and compassion by writer-director Callie T. Wiser in The Amish: Shunned, debuting on PBS’s American Experience tonight. A followup to 2012’s The Amish, which Wiser produced as part of the same series, this is an extraordinarily poignant peek inside an insular world, yet one that never feels voyeuristic or lurid. Without any hint of judgment, Wiser introduces us to six people who have left different Amish sects, some as teens and some as adults, who lead us through the emotional trauma of such a dramatic, traumatic break and how it has impacted their lives since. Their stories are nothing you might anticipate from the pop-culture depictions of the Amish we’re used to: There’s Naomi, who hadn’t even planned to leave until exposure to “English” world inspired her to go to college and become a nurse; she now runs the Amish Descendant Scholarship Fund to support others in a similar position. There’s Saloma, who simply could not bring herself to be the submissive woman she was expected to be. There’s Joe, who left and returned multiple times before settling into a different sort of religious life. There’s Jan, who wasn’t born Amish but had chosen to join an ultraconservative community as an adult. They and others share their heartache, their loneliness and homesickness, even though not all their families engage in the most extreme forms of “shunning,” which one still-observant Amish man calls “the New Testament equivalent of stoning someone to death”: it’s not violent, but it can be brutally harsh. (Wiser offers us the Amish voices — though not faces, since on-camera interviews are forbidden — of those still in the community explaining their perception on shunning and those who leave. Here, too, there is remarkably forthrightness: we don’t need to understand their rules, we’re informed, merely what the rules are.) We see firsthand the challenges of making the transition via 23-year-old Anna, a seventh subject: she has just run away from her Amish community without even telling anyone she was going, and connects with Saloma, who gives her a home and helps her with some very basic things that her new life demands, such as getting a birth certificate and filling out her limited Amish education. Anna’s story is heartbreaking from every angle — I won’t soon forget her.