June 24, 2013

Devil's Playground

Lucy Walker, 2002

When an Amish teenager reaches the age of 16, they are able to participate in a rite of passage tradition called "Rumspringa". Because the Amish faith believes that one must willingly decide to be baptized as an adult, they are never baptized as babies. Instead, when they turn 16, they are allowed to temporally vacate the Amish lifestyle and return when they are ready to be fully committed to their faith. Some teenagers leave for a month, for some it is years. Lucy Walker directs this documentary that films a group of teenagers indulging in the "English" freedoms in the middle of their Rumspringa.

Before discovering this film I had no knowledge whatsoever of this tradition. Being familiar with how conservative the Amish faith was, it seemed so surprising that they would approve of such a tradition that my own parents would have never condoned when I was 16.

Walker focuses on a small group of teenagers, all of whom participate in similar Rumspringa behavior.  They basically indulge in the same activities that most 16 year old's participate in. Keg parties, cigarettes, "English" clothing, music, dating, driving cars. They are raised in a very strict environment, and of course when they get old enough to spread their wings a bit, they are going to want to do so. It seems as if no matter how much you try to repress natural adolescent impulses, they are eventually going to manifest themselves in one way or another. It's healthy in a sense that the youth are able to express themselves, even if for a short period of time. I suppose it's a very effective tradition, because every person of the Amish faith I have ever met has been nothing short of friendly and welcoming. It also appears to be a very successful tradition - ninety percent of Amish teenagers eventually choose to be baptized. What makes me feel sympathetic is that they lay such a profound sense of guilt on themselves during their Rumspringa. They feel that because of their indulgences in what I personally feel is very normal developmental behavior, they will be punished for it in the afterlife. One of the subjects of the film, Faron Yoder, struggles with drugs and alcohol. He is reluctant to return to the Amish lifestyle, but has a noticeable sense of conscience and innocence to him. He is a heavy-hearted boy who may join the church at some point, but in the meantime he just wants to experience life OUTSIDE of his community.

Walker is effective at moderately examining the subjects of the documentary, but the film lacks organization. There seemed to be an over-emphasis on the methamphetamine use. Instead of focusing so much on the parties and the mind-altering aspects of Rumspringa, it would have been nice if she dove deeper into the mind-set of the teenager. There should have been more of a multi-perspective approach. It would have been interesting to interview a recent returnee to the Amish faith, rather than just focus on outsiders treating them as if they were escapees. The film is noticeably low-budget, looking as if it were all shot with a cheap camcorder. The scenic transition shots are devoid of color, bland... a blank landscape. The fields may be barren, but the lifestyle is not. It's a fascinating way of life, and I wish Walker would have done a more intensive examination of it.

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