I saw a fascinating documentary last night which you might have heard of called The Devil’s Playground. It came out in 2002 – I think on HBO first – and got quite a bit of press which is how I heard about it. [Here's a shout out to Melody Garren as well. She and I both had read the piece in The New York Times about it ... and Melody actually bought a copy of the film through Amazon. We kept saying: "We have to see this movie together!" That was a year ago. Sadly, I have surged forward on my own path. Sorry, Melody!! ]
Somehow, and I have no idea how (I’d like to hear the story behind the story), the filmmakers got the trust of an Amish community, enough to document the teenage transitional time called “rumspringa” – which means, “running around”. Rumspringa starts when an Amish kid is 16, and can last from anywhere to a couple months to a couple of years. The Amish teenagers are allowed to venture out into the world, and see what it is they are missing. Rumspringa is open-ended. The Amish community believes that a person needs to know what exactly it is they are giving up, they believe that being Amish needs to be a matter of making a choice. An educated choice. “Rumspringa” ends when the teenager decides that he or she has had enough wild partying, drinking, sex, and living like “the English”, and will go back, renounce the world, and join the Amish church.
The film-makers follow a group of Amish teenagers through their “rumspringa”.
The image of Amish parties is not one I will soon forget. Not that they’re at all different from “the English’s” parties. It’s just the incongruity of some of the images: Amish girls wearing white bonnets chug-a-lugging Budweiser, for example. Amish boys wearing backwards baseball caps and gold chains and saying into the camera, “Yo, wassup.” These are AMISH KIDS.
The boys, during their rumspringa, seem to all dress like ghetto rappers. The girls, generally, do not “dress English”.
Through interviews, etc., you get to know these kids. Each one of them has their own journey, their own experience with “rumspringa”. One kid pretty much falls off the deep end, and becomes a drug dealer … although there is a tentative “happy ending” for him. He quits drugs, finds an Amish girlfriend (who is as gorgeous as a super-model, I might add), and starts to think about going back to join the Amish church. His is the scariest story. Other kids just experiment with drugs, they go out with “English” boys or girls, they have sex, your basic teenage rebellion.
The Amish community itself is not treated with disrespect, which is one of the reasons why the movie is so effective. After all, apparently 90% of the Amish teenagers choose to renounce the world after “rumspringa”. Think of that. 90%. There’s one scene of a kid sifting through all his CDs and tapes, before throwing them away – knowing that this is it, in terms of popular music.
There are a couple of beautiful interviews with Amish men and women who went through their own rumspringa, and then made the choice to renounce the world. You love these people. Their simple openness.
One Amish man, with the Abe Lincoln beard and little Ben Franklin glasses, sits on a picnic table with his wife. His barn looms in the background. He is asked by the interviewer, “What do you miss most of all?”
He says without hesitation, “Modern transportation” and then bursts into laughter. He was so open, so kind-looking …
There was one other Amish guy who was working on something in his barn as he was being interviewed. He said something like, “Well … you know, these teenagers go through rumspringa, and they’re allowed to date, and see how they like it … and, well, if you put two teenagers in a room and turn the lights off, you know what’s going to happen. We’re no different from other people in that respect.” With this humorous smile as he did woodworking with handmade tools.
And some of the images …
Like a prim and proper-looking Amish teenage girl, in her bonnet, saying to the camera, “I really miss going to concerts, man. Like Gobsmack and stuff … are they still together? I love them.”
Or an Amish boy in his parents’ living room, showing us the 17 Bibles around the room, proudly – only he’s dressed like he’s from the ghetto.
In a funny way, because the teenage rebellion is condoned – because it’s set up in the society that teenagers will have a time to “run around” – there was very little anger or bitterness in any of these people. There is an understanding that in order to fully renounce the world, you must taste it all first. Otherwise rebellion could pop up later in life, when you feel like you “missed out”.
See it, if you haven’t already. I was enraptured by it.
It reminded me, too, of my time living in Philadelphia, where you have everday contact with Amish people. They’re everywhere. My boyfriend and I would drive out into Pennsylvania Dutch country and go to Amish auctions, which if you haven’t done, and you ever get a chance to … GO. They are unbelievable. And plan to spend the whole day. Even if you don’t buy anything. We used to crash Amish auctions all the time.
The first time we went to one: I ventured into the “female auction”, which was in an enormous barn. The “male auction” was outside, run by men, with all men in attendance. There they sold farm tools, horses, etc. But the “female auction’ was where they sold the quilts. The famous quilts. I sat on the wooden bench, surrounded by Amish women, looking up at quilts so beautiful it took my breath away. There were also obviously people from boutiques around the country in attendance, because these quilts were going for mega-mega bucks.
A young Amish girl, maybe 10 years old, had made her first quilt – a small one, with a very simple stitch. Blue with black stripes, with big hearts stitched into it. It was going for forty dollars, so … trembling … (I’ve never been to an auction before, and I stuck out like a sore thumb … everyone there was Amish, this was their world, not mine … ) I bid on it. And got it! I still have it in my apartment. I love it – this was the first money that this young Amish girl had ever made with her own hands. I don’t know, I thought that was pretty cool.
My boyfriend and I met up later – after he had hung out at the “male auction” and I came back from the “female auction”, and we wandered around together, and finally came across a makeshift volleyball game, being played by a bunch of Amish boys. They were all, oh … in their late teens, early 20s? They had made the ball from a bunch of leather strips, and were all playing like MANIACS. Girls sat along the sidelines watching, giggling. All the guys straw hats were lined up along the outskirts of the playing area. Many of them had that thick thick blonde hair, like a shock of straw … and they all were leaping, jumping, high-fiving … and in between plays, the girls on the sidelines would run out to give them lemonade.
Basically, what I am trying to convey here – is that those Amish boys were HOT. There wasn’t one in the bunch who wasn’t good-looking, and I’m not even talking about normal handsomeness, I’m talking about movie-star HOT. They all looked like Heath Ledger or something. And yet nicer-looking – because they seemed so human, their faces were open, manly. They were babes, let’s face it.
I had come across a group of volleyball-playing Amish babes.
It was such a beautiful vivid scene. I still remember it. The field, the flying leather-strip ball, the calling laughing voices of the Amish guys, the giggles of the watching Amish girls, and the straw hats piled up on the side.
My boyfriend and I drove home with our Amish goods piled up in the back. I said at one point, “God, those Amish guys were hot.”
Which is such an incongruous strange sentence …
“What’s your ideal type?”
“Oh, you know, your basic hot Amish guy.”
This became a joke between us. He and I would get into a fight or whatever, and my boyfriend would mutter, “I know it, you’re gonna leave me for a hot Amish guy, I just know it.”