To Be Young and Amish:
An Analytical and Movie Commentary on the Documentary Film, Devil’s Playground
The world is clearly filled with great differences and diversity. Whoever said that there should be equality and similarity amongst humanity has not been thinking quite well because there is no such thing as equality and similarity. From the moment that a person is born, there already exists a sense of uniqueness in each individual which differentiates him or her from the rest of the individuals in the world. In fact, even twins—fraternal or identical—have huge differences between them. Thus, people should not mock or ridicule people who are different just because they are weird, uncommon, or surprising since those “weird” people would most likely think the same to other people. Just what is the whole point of this introduction on the great diversity? It will have to lie on the fact that such diversity sometimes creates chaos amongst people, and the fact that because other people have differences in culture, opinions and priorities are what create confusion and pandemonium.
This is the same case for the Amish youth who are so used to the idea of being one and the same as everybody else. However, when they are given the freedom to become different and to nurture their individuality, they suddenly become wild and engage in vices—what happens is they frolic in the devil’s playground—figuratively speaking, of course (or maybe not). Though this conclusion cannot be said the same for the hundreds of Amish youth around the world, in Lucy Walker’s documentary film, Devil’s Playground, which features the “rumspringa” of the Amish youth, it can be obviously seen that when the time comes for a much sheltered young to be exposed to the world and the realities of life, it can be a very bad thing to the point of being likened to having a hell created on earth.
The Amish community can be considered as any other community that strictly abides by their religious practices and beliefs. Their scriptures are practiced in all aspects of their life—from how they dress, what they own, and eventually, to how they speak and think. Any liberal and modern thinking person may perceive such a way of living as ridiculous, but this is not the case. As introduced in the first part of the essay, people are different and such difference should be respected. However, one cannot help but think that the members of such a community would be monopolized entirely and stripped of their rights to think for themselves, to make decisions on their own, and even to experience everything that life has to offer. After all, the members of the Amish community do not know that the outside world exists. How on earth can they make decisions that they want to be part of such community without whatsoever knowledge of the outside world? This is where the very important and life-changing aspect of “rumspringa” comes in.
“Rumspringa” which translates to “running around” is literally that—running around. An Amish youth, when he or she becomes sixteen, is given all the freedom that the world has to offer, and any youth would gladly take them all in and make the most out of it. The rumspringa is accepted in the Amish church and is a vital part for any member. This is because when a youth has experienced all the things that the world has to offer, the decision of formally and officially being absorbed within the Amish church versus being shunned by the community forever is at hand. The time has come for the youth to weigh in the decision of whether he or she wants to be part of the Amish community and live by all the beliefs and practices, or go out into and embrace the world of materialism and electricity.
Such decision may seem unimportant and even flimsy to a youth who has been acquainted with all things that the outside world has to offer. However, an Amish youth has lived in simplicity and humility all his or her life that even electricity, certain types of clothes, and education are a matter of being against their beliefs. For an Amish youth, to choose a life within the church is a decision to shun all things frivolous and even (to the eyes of outside world) necessary. However, choosing to have the opportunity to go to college, wear make-up, have uncovered hair, and look into the mirror is a decision that entitles an Amish youth to be ostracized by the Amish community and be apart from one’s own family, friends, and home. Thus, there is no gray area and no middle ground—there is only to be forever Amish or to be regarded as a shame and embarrassment.
In Lucy Walker’s Devil’s Playground, the life of the Amish youth while undergoing the rumspringa is filmed, and their journey to go back to the arms of the Amish community, to the arms of the outside world, and even to create a world something in between is chronicled. The aspirations, thoughts, experiences, fears, and ambitions of a set of young Amish people are filmed—Faron, Sara, Velda, Gerald, Emma, and Joann.
In the documentary film, the Amish community life is depicted. This is done so as to show how different the life of the Amish people is compared to the life of an ordinary person who gets to experience cable television, mobile phones, uncovered hair, and plain electricity. Next, the lives of the youth are introduced. There is Faron who has fought with his father during his rumspringa and has left home to stay with his friend Gerald, another Amish youth who chose to do his rumspringa without the supervision of his parents. Then, there is Sara, Faron’s girlfriend who is as high and as addicted to illegal drugs as her boyfriend. Velda and Joann, on the other hand, have already finished their rumspringa and have chosen to go to very different directions. Velda has chosen not to involve herself with the Amish community and lives with a life focused on making the most out of her freedom while Joann has chosen to be fully absorbed within the Amish church. By the end of the film, the lives of the people are as uncertain as ever with a few exceptions: Faron has long broken up with Sara and has got himself a new girlfriend in the person of Emma wherein they chose to live a life as something in between the Amish beliefs and that of being “English.” Gerald gives up his party-going ways and suddenly decides to covert himself to Amish after being sick and tired of all the fun and frivolous things that life has to offer. Joann has been formally sworn into the Amish church and is unbelievably happy and content with her decision, while Velda has chosen to improve her education and make the most of what life has to offer.
The film succeeds in telling the stories of the Amish youth and the predicament that they have encountered while undergoing the rumspringa. Both sides of the story (and even more) are told in the film—there are no judgments and biases regarding which is right and wrong when an Amish youth chooses to be fully absorbed within the Amish church or when he or she decides to celebrate his or her individuality. Instead, different lives and different endings are taken into account as each Amish youth featured believes that his or her choice was correct and he or she is happy with his or her respective choice. Thus, there is no wrong or right in being Amish or non-Amish—what matters in the end is that the individual feels very happy and content with his or her decision and that he or she has stood with his or her personal principles.
In the film, the life of the youth while undergoing rumspringa can be quite shocking as it can be considered wild. An Amish youth who was once so sheltered is suddenly given so much freedom that it tends to be frightening. The said youth would go to endless parties and engage in excessive drinking, pre-marital sex with different people and countless partners, and even illegal drugs. The rumspringa can be considered as the first intake of air of an Amish youth since this is the time that the youth gets to experience so much freedom, and any action during this time is not reprimanded and discouraged. According to the film, the rumspringa is necessary in the sense that the youth gets to experience the worldliness of life so that they will not feel deprived of the said worldliness. Thus, when a youth steps out of the Amish restrictions, what he or she experiences is anything that he or she fancies, be it alcohol, drugs, or sex which is exactly what happens to Faron, Sara, Gerald, and Velda.
Faron and Sara were together and were known to be drug dealers. They encouraged and provided the much coveted drugs that their friends wanted until one fateful day, after months of surveillance by the police, they were finally caught and arrested while they were in the process of drug dealing. After cooperating with the police that they will supply information regarding other drug dealers, Sara and Faron broke up and Faron received death threats from other local drug dealers forcing him to return to his family even if he was not entirely sold on the idea of being a dull pledged Amish. However, he again left his family and found himself a new girlfriend in the person of Emma, and they moved to an entirely different neighborhood compared to his previous life.
What happens with Faron is that he retains a sense of faith in the Amish church while not totally renouncing the outside world. The drug dealer in the past has long regretted his actions of introducing drugs to his friends and retains a life of individuality combined with faith. Faron in the end, acknowledges that he still has things to think over whether he will be allow himself to be baptized as an Amish or continue living the way in the outside world. But what is truly praiseworthy regarding Faron is the fact that he does not hate his past nor has he reverted to the appalling worldliness of an “English” life—what he has ended up with is an uncertain future but perfectly balanced.
On the other hand, Gerald, his party-going friend, surprisingly became baptized as an Amish after years of being so materialistic and worldly. Like Faron, Gerald is admirable in the sense that he decided on his own the path that he has to take. He experienced the outside world and that is it—he wants to be Amish through and through. Such decision is not ridiculous, appalling, or frustrating in the eyes of a liberated and modern mind. Gerald was never forced and he was never manipulated into making that decision—he managed to decide on being baptized entirely on his own.
Velda meanwhile should not be condemned because of her decision of not being Amish. Velda decided that she wanted an education and she pursued it. She did not exactly delighted in the drugs, alcohol, and sex—what she wanted was to improve herself, to be successful, to have a family to call her own, and to establish a career—things which Amish beliefs vehemently frown upon.
Joann, on the other hand, like Gerald, has decided early on that she wants to be part of the Amish community. In the film, Joann realizes that being part of the Amish church is everything she wants in life and even greatly regrets the things she has done when she was undergoing her rumspringa. Joann mentions in the end that she wants to be someone that inspires other people, most especially the other Amish youth—like her younger sister whom she sorely missed during her rumspringa and who was one of the reasons why she still chose to be an Amish since she wants to be with her family.
The stories of the five young Amish mentioned above are something which should inspire other people regardless of age, gender, religion and culture. Because of the film, it has opened my eyes to the circumstance that people should not be shunned just because they are different or have such uncanny beliefs and practices. People think in a certain way, say certain things, and do certain actions because there are deeper and justifiable reasons behind such thoughts, words, and actions. An outsider might look at the Amish community with such difference or even perhaps with such disdain because they chose not to reprimand the youth on their rumspringa; however, what anyone should keep in mind is that things happen for a reason and while the rumspringa may look like over the top, it serves to strengthen the faith and the resolution of an Amish youth who chooses to be baptized.
Faron and the other Amish youth are just like the other youth in the other parts of the world—searching their identities and their purpose in life. Hopefully, in the end, they will realize like what Faron and others did that one’s own identity and sense of individuality are not found in other things or people but in one’s own self. In conclusion, the documentary film was wonderfully made with a wonderful message that leaves such a poignant impact to the audience. What I have learned at the end of the film is what it is has been trying to point out—that the Amish community (or any other community for that matter) may be different, but it does not mean that they deserve less of our respect, admiration and understanding.
Devil’s Playground. Dir. Lucy Walker. Perf. Velda Bontrager, Joann Hochstetler, Emma
Miller, Faron Yoder and Gerald Yutzy. Cinemax Reel Life, 2002. Film.