"The day you turn 16, your whole life changes." So says an Amish teenager reflecting on rumspringa, a period lasting anywhere from ages 16-21 in which Amish youngsters are free to sample "English" culture—that is, non-Amish living.
They smoke, drink, party and drive cars with complete freedom during this "running about" period chronicled in the new documentary, "Devil's Playground," by Lucy Walker. The project is part of Cinemax's "Reel Life" series, a platform for independent documentaries of various styles and subjects.
Amish believe baptism into the church should be a free and informed decision; it is a decision, therefore, made only by adults. And since the Amish way of life demands total commitment, the decision to join the Amish church is a grave one.
In fact, one of the teens characterizes rumspringa as a vaccine: "You get a little dose of the outside world, just enough so you won't get tempted later on. And you'll be a happier Amish person if you had a choice."
The documentary follows five Amish youngsters. At the heart of the project is Faron Yoder, 18. His dose of the outside world contributes to a drug habit—cocaine and "crank" (crystal methamphetamine)—that costs him $100 a day.
Faron's friend, Gerald Yutzy, is 16. Gerald has moved into a trailer close to the railroad tracks and is happy to be away from home. "If I was living at home," he says, "I couldn't have 200 channels of DirecTV, a stereo, a Nintendo and a fridge full of beer."
Joann Hochstetler is 18. "I did things I wish I wouldn't have done," she says at one point, reflecting on her rumspringa. "I didn't dress Amish. I went to a Baptist church. I didn't live at home for five months. For a girl, that's almost unthinkable."
Velda Bontrager is 23. She says she was depressed, and when she turned 16, she tried dealing with her depression by drinking and partying.
Lastly, there's Emma Miller, 17. Faron falls in love with Emma, but his hopes for a life with her seem dashed when she decides to move to Florida.
In Walker's fascinating picture of rumspringa, the teens do more than party (though they do party and stay abreast of goings-on with their ever-present cell phones). They also discuss heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, certainty and doubt. In the midst of living in the fast lane, they seem conditioned to reflect on how it will affect their lives—both here and in the hereafter.
Despite the strictures of the Amish community, 90 percent of Amish teens choose to remain Amish, the highest retention rate ever in the Amish church. Teens cite bonds of community and family as reasons for remaining Amish.
One Amish teen says going back to the community isn't easy after rumspringa: "You think, man, I can't watch TV or nothing like that," he says. "But you find other stuff to do. You communicate more with your family."
And relationships are paramount in the community. An Amish adult, consenting to participate in the documentary, explains that decisions about what the community will allow aren't dictated by technology so much as a "perception of how it will affect community and family life."
"That solar-powered battery charger—how's that going to tear your family apart?" he says. "But the car, the television, the video games … Those things can keep you out of relationship."
"Devil's Playground" paints a unique portrait of teens caught "betwixt and between" two worlds: one Amish, the other "English," as they say. One offers safety, security, certainty. The other poses adventure, risk, doubt.
These teens stand at the threshold of belief, commitment, baptism, community. They live intense lives, question their identities and struggle with their very selves as they float through this liminal period in Amish culture.
"I'm not English, and I'm not Amish," Faron says. "I'm just me."
"Devil's Playground" is deft documentary filmmaking, and a singular contribution to our understanding of religion and rites of passage.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE's associate director.
"Devil's Playground" airs again on Cinemax on Saturday, June 22 at 6:00 a.m. ET.
Also read an interview with the director on EthicsDaily.com!