Q&A with Amish Scholar Donald B. Kraybill

Later this month PBS will air a new American Experience documentary entitled The Amish. This two-hour film gives viewers an unprecedented and intimate portrait of contemporary Amish faith and life. JHU Press author and Amish scholar Donald B. Kraybill served as program consultant and here answers questions about his experience working on the film.

Q.  What are the differences between writing books about the Amish and serving as the program consultant for a documentary on them?

A.  I served as the program consultant for building connections with Amish people and proposing stories, providing information, fact checking, and critiquing a rough cut of the film. Because the Amish forbid television and videography, they are much more willing to be interviewed for a book than a film. They willingly speak with me when I gather information for a book but it is much more challenging to persuade them to be involved with a film. Furthermore, I did not conduct the interviews for the film and Amish people were not always comfortable speaking to a stranger on tape.

Second, an author has full control over the content of the book. As a consultant, I offered ideas and made suggestions, but the director of the film controlled the content. Even a documentary, in the end, is an artistic interpretation of the subject. Only certain Amish stories were selected from dozens of possibilities. Such selectivity and interpretation is true of writing, of course, as well.

Q. Why did you agree to consult with the production of The Amish if the Amish themselves are opposed to television and film?

A. Over the last 10 years I have been asked if not begged by at least two dozen film directors wanting to produce a film on the Amish to help them get access to Amish people. I have always refused because of the Amish moral taboo on posing for photos as well as the fact that they reject television. For me to go into the Amish community and try to persuade my Amish friends to violate one of the religious norms of their community would not only scar my personal relationship with them but could result in them being punished by the church.

When the executive director of American Experience and the film director asked if I would consult with them on an Amish documentary, I explained the cultural taboo and said no. They clearly wanted to respect the moral boundaries of Amish society and so they proposed recording Amish voices off camera but not asking any of them to pose on camera. I was very comfortable with that respectful approach and so I cooperated, as did some 20 Amish people in several states whose voices narrate the film.

Q. What was the most challenging aspect of  speaking about  the Amish on film?

A.The wonderful thing about writing is that you can rewrite a sentence a dozen times to say exactly what you want to say. I spent four hours on camera answering questions posed by the director. I did not know the questions in advance and did not have access to any notes. That experience was frightening because I knew that short sound bites would be snipped from my comments and appear throughout the film. I also knew that I would have no opportunity to edit or revise my comments. As a cautious scholar who wants to be as accurate as possible I found those four hours to be the most difficult and stressful of the many hours I invested in the film.

photo by Payal Vora

Q. As an expert on the Amish, did you learn anything you didn’t know about the community you have studied for so long?

A. Frankly I didn’t learn anything new about the Amish community, but I did learn a lot about filmmaking!

Q. What was the most challenging part of producing the film?

A. Apart from getting the Amish to agree to have their voices recorded, the biggest challenge was for the producer: how do you fill the big screen with two hours of images trying to cover a subject that doesn’t want to be covered? I think the director and producer did a wonderful job, but as the executive director of American Experience said, “This was the most challenging of the 300 films we’ve produced in the last 23 years.”

Q. What do you hope the documentary will achieve?

A. The Amish is a historic achievement in documenting Amish life in North America in their own voices with footage from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Colorado. It is a milestone in telling the Amish story on film.

By special arrangement with PBS and the film’s producers, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the JHU Press will host a a pre-broadcast screening of the documentary on February 12, 2012.

Donald B. Kraybill is a Distinguished College Professor and senior fellow in the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania. Widely recognized for his work on Anabaptist groups, he has authored and edited many books, including, most recently, the Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites, published by JHU Press.