Though it may not seem like it, the stakes of the new PBS documentary The Amish: Shunned are life and death. On one side are people who feel that to continue being Amish will mean losing all sense of self and independence. On the other are their former compatriots, who believe their family members have condemned themselves to hell. There’s very little room for middle ground in that argument, and the participants in it are unlikely to budge, except under extraordinary circumstances.
This gives Shunned an astonishing emotional weight its predecessor, 2012’s The Amish, lacked. That was a fine film, particularly when considered within the auspices of PBS’ occasionally hidebound American Experience series. But it played off of preconceived notions of what a film about the Amish should look like. There were plenty of shots of idyllic country life and rustic technology that appear to belong in another century. It was informative, but not as evocative as it could be. Like many films about subcultures in the modern world, it was more about how the Amish navigated their life among the “English” than anything else. Shunned opens that story up to the internal conflicts that rip families apart when children leave not just a religion, but what’s essentially a bygone era. It’s a much richer film for it.
Written and directed by Callie T. Wiser (a producer on the first film), The Amish: Shunned follows seven individuals who’ve left the church over the past several decades. The film opens with its most recent departure, a young woman named Anna, who leaves all she’s ever known to live with a woman who left the Amish in the 1970s. (That woman, Saloma Furlong, speaks of hearing a religious leader tell her as a child that she would be like one grain in a loaf of bread when it came to the Amish community. Intent on not being ground up, she hoped she would be a grain that fell from the millstone.) Anna’s slow acclimation to life in non-Amish America and the tension over whether she will be able to break free from her past provide something of a spine for Shunned, particularly in the scenes between Anna and Saloma. But the film is also careful not to be the tale of one woman. Instead, it’s a collage of voices, uniting together to form a uniquely American story that remains largely untold.
The practice of shunning—actively ostracizing someone who’s left the Amish faith and cutting them off from their family—is important to Shunned, but it’s not at the film’s center. Instead, Shunned is far more about what it means to believe one thing, then suddenly find it wanting. There are many different examples of this in Shunned: a teenage girl who went to Florida and realized she no longer wanted to belong to her church, a former Amish man who has replaced that faith with the zeal of born-again Christianity, a woman who actually converted to the Amish religion before backing out once she found it too restrictive. Shunned belongs to all of them.
Wiser’s greatest decision is to let these individual voices tell Shunned in their own words. There is no narrator, and the film isn’t afraid to let long silences dominate the soundtrack as its subjects work hard at baking or farming. Wiser also checks in occasionally with those left behind, the Amish who fear for their children’s souls or fret over how true happiness can’t come from trying to be an individual but, instead, from living according to rigid laws prescribed by an even more rigid and unyielding community. These monologues play over footage of lives carried out amid the quiet and contemplation of the rural United States. For a film that wrestles with subjects of such weight and importance, Shunned doesn’t strain for effect. It trusts its subjects and the footage to get the point across. It’s not unlike lying in bed in the middle of the night, contemplating the existence of the divine.
Shunned is not a film that’s interested in rocketing through all of its stories. Its pace is leisurely, and it’s too fond of taking time to drink in the atmosphere of its world. But it’s also so smart about how it tells its story and how it reveals its characters—for instance, Wiser plays out Anna’s growing comfort with the documentary cameras without drawing attention to it—that it feels churlish to nitpick. In its best moments (and there are many), Shunned gets at something very universal through the very specific example of those who have left the Amish faith. Everyone has something they’ve ordered their lives around that eventually lets them down. To lose that central belief can be scarring, but it can also be freeing—sometimes in equal measure. From its opening moments of a young woman trying to make a clean break to its deeply moving final images of an unexpected return, Shunned understands just how hard and how vital it is to see foundations crumble.
Directed and written by: Callie T. Wiser
Debuts: Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern as part of American Experience on PBS. (Check local listings.)
Format: Two-hour documentary