I would like to respond to Christine’s question today. She asked: I heard about you and your story on the PBS documentary, which I thought was great. You mentioned a few posts earlier that there was meaningful symbolism throughout the film. I was wondering if you could tell us more about that? I’m very interested.
Christine, I’m glad you asked this, because I want to elaborate, but I wanted people to see it first so they can form their own impressions. Anyone who has been meaning to watch this online and hasn’t, you can still go to the American Experience website and watch it.
I’ll start with a few overall symbols throughout the film. The use of captions instead of a narrator to me symbolizes “the quiet in the land” which is a term often used to describe Plain People.
Birds flit in and out of the film throughout, which to me symbolizes how the Amish life is more communal with nature than the mainstream American life.
I will start from the beginning of the film and note the things I found as symbolic. I would be interested in your observations.
In one of the first scenes, there is a young girl “scooting” through the morning mist. This is like this film’s attempt at portraying the Amish — even a two-hour film cannot give a “clear” picture of Amish life — it is too big an undertaking. However, the film does give some views and captures the “feel” of Amish life — misty as it may be.
When the Amish farmer is talking about the Amish people striving to be “the salt of the earth”the children are picking up potatoes — a root vegetable that has to be harvested from the earth.
The farmer who is filmed throughout, talking about being the fifth-generation farmer is very symbolic of the deep traditions of Amish life.
When Karen Johnson-Weiner is talking about the Amish wanting to be in the world, but not of the world, there is a woman walking on the road, pulling a wagon with her children in it (and one of the children pushing the wagon) as cars go by — the rest of the world is moving on, as she stays her pace.
Perhaps one of the reasons that so many people are drawn to Amish life is because there are times when it seems that they bring heaven and earth together. There is something so earthy, and yet so heavenly about the pastoral scenes as the song is being sung about the glory of heaven (this is the first song sung in the film).
When the woman doing her laundry talks about morning devotions, the family sings “Amazing Grace” together. There are beautiful singing voices mixed with an off-key adolescent boy’s voice. That is so “Amish” to include everyone in the singing, regardless of their talent. (I had no idea I couldn’t sing until I left the Amish).
David Weaver-Zercher is talking about the church community being the most important social unit as people gather for church. Even the body language of the young girls is significant here — they have their arms folded across their chests, somewhat stoop-shouldered — so indicative of the humility expected of them.
One of the most poignant parts of the film is the mother and father of one of the girls who died in the Nickel Mines tragedy talking about giving up judgment and recognizing that God is Supreme and doesn’t make mistakes. I have viewed this film many times, and I still can’t get through this part without tears. There is something I cannot put my finger on that is emotionally evocative about the wind blowing through the leaves in the tree as the mother is talking about her soul kneeling before God. What is that?
In the beginning of the “winter” part of this film, there is a donkey walking through a winter storm, followed by two men shoveling snow, followed by a farmer and his son milking their cows. They are all plodding on — through the monotony that sometimes comes of life on earth. This is further exemplified by the violin music as background.
As the farmer is talking about his son having mixed feelings of leaving school, he says that his son likes academic challenges and the son is squatted down next to a cow.
As I am talking about loving school, I say that it opened up a whole new world and a new way of thinking, there is old footage of a young girl smiling, as if she is having a good time. Then when I’m talking about finishing the eighth grade, knowing that would mark the end of school for me, I say that I didn’t allow myself to think about it all that summer. They show a young girl cupping her head in her hands as if she’s deep in thought.
As I am talking about the morning my younger siblings went back to school, and I couldn’t go, I was sitting upstairs in my room. They show an old photo of our house. They didn’t know this, but my room was right inside that upstairs window.
As my husband, David, is talking about me enjoying a sense of freedom, they show photos of him and me on a ship in Baltimore. And here I will pause to say that they had no idea what they captured by this placement of the photos. The “back story” is that when David and I were in Baltimore together, we toured this old ship, and I talked him into posing that way for the camera, and then I talked him into taking a photo of me with that pose. He thought it was goofy. Yet, here is an expression of enjoying my freedom, which he says he found attractive.
When I am talking about the Amish life not being about saying no — it is about going along, they show a young girl outside in the snow. She is looking back, as though she is trying to decide which way to go, but then she turns and runs towards the house. They could not have paid an actress to perform that as she did — I have no idea where they filmed her, but it was perfect.
As David is talking about how I changed when the Amish came to take me back, he says I was not myself. They show a scene of a stop sign in the winter, with birds flying about. The birds are free, but we were not. We had to obey the sign.
There are a few things they could not have known that they captured in this piece. When they show the photo of my mother (black and white outside shot of the woman with the curly hair), there is piano music playing. When my mother was a young girl going to public school, she loved playing the piano. She told me once that she used to go down to the gym during recess every chance she got to play the piano. By the time she was my mother, playing the piano was not acceptable among the Amish, so I never heard her play. When I saw this film, I felt I had.
As Steven Nolt is talking about shunning and the form it sometimes takes, there is a scene of the sun rays barely breaking through the clouds, with a silhouette of a tree that looks almost Biblical. The single tree evokes a feeling of isolation that comes of being shunned. The scene is reminiscent of Calvary. The dark clouds seem to convey trouble in paradise.
When Levi Shetler is talking about how torn he is, there is a scene of him at the laundromat, watching the clothing cycling in the dryer. This is like a symbol of his life going on, but without joy or meaning. His understated feelings are palpable and the drabness in his life help evoke that feeling.
When the woman who tells the abuse story starts out, she brings up the word submission as there is a family working in the garden — many of them are kneeling in the dirt.
In the scene with the men walking along, with a little boy trotting along behind them, the woman is talking about how she finally went to the church to ask for help for the abuse she was enduring from her husband. Then a song starts up, and it is being led by an older man with a quivering voice, a symbol of the established traditions of the church. She goes on to say that the first thing the minister did was ask her what she did to make her husband treat her that way. There is a scene of a buggy going towards a barn. From the perspective that the camera is filming this, the barn looks huge. That is what this woman must have felt she was up against. She goes on to say that she and her husband were both excluded from communion until they could see where they have failed, and how she felt she was on the outside looking in. The next scene is a pastoral view of a farm, from the outside looking in. This is followed by a view of a closed gate — also from the outside looking in. She ends her story talking about how obedience or submission is not easy. Then we see a woman kneeling in her garden, planting something. One cannot get any more humble or submissive than kneeling on the earth.
Towards the end, there is a scene of Amish men working in an RV factory that is reminiscent of the footage they showed earlier of women working in a mill, back in the industrial revolution. Donald Kraybill articulates the uncertainty of what it means that the Amish mix with the outside world as much as they do. He says we don’t know the outcome of what several generations of this mixing will bring. This is followed by the scene of the Amish in Colorado, looking for land to move out there, but being really uncertain of whether this will work.
There is a beautiful scene of a summer night, with lightening bugs all around, followed by a scene in farm country, with lights of the city beyond. That is followed by the fireworks in the park in Paradise, Pennsylvania, as we see young Amish people mixing with their English neighbors. It shows how the Amish are no longer completely in the dark — through this film and in other ways, their way of life is becoming more illuminated to the outside world.
Towards the end, there is the scene in which there is a tour bus and an Amish man is using television to interpret the difference between the Amish and the English. I think there is another difference between the Amish and the tourists: the Amish are living the life, while the tourists are “viewing” the Amish life.
This separation is complicated in one of the next scenes when a young boy is selling goods to tourists. And that is exactly what this film does — just when it seems they are capturing what “The Amish” are about, the scene shifts.
The last words spoken in the film as the farmer is working his land, is him saying that this life is but a speck in the sand compared to eternity. I think if anything captures the Amish way of thinking, it is these few simple words. Their faith is what Karen Johnson-Weiner aptly describes as “a lived faith.” It is not enough to believe in Jesus as our savior, one must also follow the example he set for us when he lived on earth. They see Jesus’ life as eternal, and his life on earth as very short span within time that stretches on forever. In this same way, our lives are but “a speck in the sand compared to eternity.” So, living simply, in their way of thinking, is following the example Jesus set forth. They strive to follow Jesus’ example — but they are human and so they often fall far short of that mark.