Jokes for a documentary about “The Amish” — a group whose religious beliefs cause them to completely shun electronic media — sort of write themselves. But writer-director David Belton’s spare, lyrical look at this modern-day cultural anomaly proves a bit of a snooze — undermined in part by its subject matter and the Amish’s refusal to be interviewed on camera. So while there are some interesting aspects and insights, at two hours, this “American Experience” production is one long, slow buggy ride, offering scant incentive to use the TV, if you’ve got one.
Credit cinematographer Tim Cragg with lots of long, languid visions of the countryside to compensate for the Amish’s reluctance to be filmed, providing a backdrop to their audio-recorded comments. And the producers had to go through an arduous process to win trust even for that.
Beyond that breakthrough, though, the documentary leaps around chronologically, providing history and snapshots of the Amish experience. Perhaps the most compelling segments deal with various court battles fought over the way the Amish rear their children or refuse to install modern conveniences in their houses associated with meeting safety codes, like smoke detectors.
There are also revelations from those who have left the community, and discussion about how the Amish grew more disconnected with the outside world as technology bloomed. With each new innovation, the community’s steadfast adherence to its ways seemed more exotic — as academics explain, rejecting the telephone under the theory, “If you can call, why visit?” and fearing the car “will splinter our community.”
For such an intriguing group in the broad strokes, however, Belton’s film never quite gets under the community’s skin, and gives short shrift to media depictions of the Amish (see “Witness”) that, for better and worse, have helped shape perceptions of them. Even the initial device — seeing a few of the many tourists drawn to see this stubborn devotion to a simpler life — doesn’t really address the roots of this fascination.Finally, the documentary appears flummoxed by the limitations the Amish imposed on it. Granted, there’s a certain charm, or at least poetry, in this somewhat tedious outcome: In their latest skirmish with modernity, the Amish have won. It’s kind of sweet, provided you don’t have to watch it.