Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Movie Review - "Devil's Playground"

A dramatic title, but the film is a straightforward documentary about a very secretive community: the Amish. Specifically, about a custom of Amish teenagers to venture out into the outside world, a period they call "Rumspringa".

The most startling scenes come early on, and show the teens - ages 16 and up - dressing in secular ("English") clothes, drinking, doing drugs and having wild parties. This behavior is an accepted part of community life; the kids of far-flung Amish enclaves meet to blow off steam together. It goes on with the tacit approval of the Amish elders, and it seems clear that the intention of the parents is to let the teens overdo it; to indulge in the worst excesses, and come back to the church with a negative impression of English life - the "Devil's Playground".

The film necessarily reveals a lot about the insular nature of Amish life. I was born in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, near where some of the vignettes were filmed, and I never knew some of the details of their lives - except that they reject technology, dress alike, and are very religious. (The photo here is of an Amish family that Gail and I saw at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania - quite a non sequitur, to see the horse-and-buggy technophobes quietly examining the gleaming jet fighter!) But some of the tenets of their community are detailed here, and it is restrictive. The children are only educated to age 13; more education than that is thought to lead to "pride". Even the elder members of the community wistfully speak of the things they miss, and repeat phrases like "you just don't question things" and "you get used to it". Unsurprisingly, the Amish live by strict gender roles that restrict the women more severely than the men.

I remarked to Gail that Hassidic Jews are similar in many ways. They also live, speak and dress alike, and in anachronistic fashion. Their communities are just as isolated, although they tend to live in more urban areas (my theory is that, being Jews, they couldn't cope with the horses-and-buggies; Jews generally don't handle animals larger than a corned beef.)

"Devil's Playground" follows the stories of several Amish youths over a period of at least a few years. One boy becomes involved in using and dealing methamphetamines; a girl struggles with depression, and the limitations imposed on her as an Amish woman. The cameras are allowed very candid access as they try to make the central decision of their lives - whether or not to return to the church, put on the black clothing and turn their back on the larger world. (The elder Amish are very hesitant to be filmed, although a few - with an unusual savvy - do appear on camera.)

Gail and I found "Devil's Playground" fascinating - thanks to Lana for suggesting the title.