The Amish Diaries
I am always ready for the third question … I’ve just answered their first two questions, and I know what comes next. Question 1: “What do you do?” My answer: “I own a small TV and film production company that specializes in nonfiction, and I produce documentary films and reality TV.” Simple enough.
Question #2: “Oh, have you made any things I might have seen?” My answer: “Well, if you’ve ever seen anything about an Amish person, I probably made it. I produced a documentary called ‘Devil’s Playground,’ a TV series called ‘Amish in the City,’ two documentary specials for Nat Geo on the Amish, I helped make a book on the Amish and I’ve got a new 10-part TV series coming out on Nat Geo about ex-Amish people.”
The eyebrows raise, the gaze widens and I can see the question forming before the words escape their lips. Here it comes: “Did you grow up Amish or something???”
My answer always surprises them. “Nope, I grew up about as far from Amish as you could imagine, on 66th and Third in Manhattan, and I went to high school in a 12-story building.” This gets the usual blank stare: “How the hell have you spent the last decade and a half doing projects about the Amish? And more importantly … why do you keep doing them?”
My answer to the first question is the subject of this blog post. The answer to the second question is a longer one, and one that I will answer over the course of the next few months as my latest television series, “Amish: Out of Order” airs on the National Geographic Channel. This latest series is one of the most personal and fascinating shows I’ve ever worked on, and it goes into depths of Amish culture like never before . The show follows a community of ex-Amish people who have come together in Missouri to live life with one foot in the “English” or non-Amish world, but one foot still back with the Amish. One of the community leaders is Mose Gingerich, who was on “Amish in the City,” and he and his fellow “Exes” face some of the most challenging things one can imagine, from shunning by their families, to the death of one of their peers, to crises of faith and questions of whether they are destined for a life in Hell because of the choices they have made. But at the same time, each episode will explore one aspect of Amish culture that no one has ever shown on television: everything from building barns, to celebrating holidays, to converting into the Amish faith, to the rules of shunning. Each week I will provide some info, analysis and behind-the-scenes stories about this fascinating subculture.
But back to question 1. How on earth did I start making projects about the Amish? I don’t think that most of us, at the age of 24, a few cocktails deep at a bar hanging out with old friends from high school, assume that a casual conversation is going to change the course of our career. How could we? Particularly when that conversation includes a language, Pennsylvania Dutch, that I had never heard of. But there I was, talking to a friend of a friend from Lancaster, Pa. And he was telling a story about how the last time he was at home, he was at a 7-Eleven and an Amish teen came over and asked if he would buy him beer. “No,” I incorrectly corrected, “The Amish don’t drink.” (I later learned that this was completely inaccurate; legal-age Amish can of course buy and drink alcohol.) “Actually,” my friend said, “Amish teenagers have a period of time where they are released from the rules to go explore the outside world to decide if they want to be Amish or not, its called ‘rumspringa.’” My jaw hit the floor.
Nowadays, I would have taken out my phone, typed in “rumspringa” and instantly gotten thousands of hits telling me exactly what it was. But back in 1998 we didn’t have things like “smartphones,” “Wikipedia,”“Google” or, quite frankly, good taste in clothes (might I interest you in a pair of slightly used red and green plaid pants?), but that’s an entirely separate topic. For information, we had to go to places called libraries. Perhaps some of you remember them. Big buildings, lots of books, genesis of most librarian fantasies. Anyway, through some deep microfiche and film research we were able to ascertain that this “rumspringa” was in fact a real thing, and soon we were off developing a project.
My business partner and I had tried numerous times to pitch projects to HBO; while they had definitively passed on every single one of them, they had liked them just enough to at least allow us to come back and pitch them again. But this time we had Amish teenagers who were drinking, partying, smoking crystal meth and wearing blue jeans. They bought the project. And we have been in production on something with the HBO family every single day since.
It took us three years to make “Devil’s Playground,” and I assure you that the quality of that film had very little to do with my efforts. We were lucky enough to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, receive numerous awards, bring the word “rumspringa” into the public consciousness for the first time and have the film endure in such a way that I was told recently by someone that she studied it in her middle school history class. Flattering, but thanks for making me feel old.
The success of that film opened a number of doors for our company, Stick Figure Productions, and we began to make other projects. We were often approached about more Amish work. We rejected most projects, but the itch was still there. “Devil’s Playground” followed a small group of kids but never saw what happened if kids had an opportunity to explore big city life. So in 2004 we teamed up to make a groundbreaking and unique television series called “Amish in the City,” where we took five Amish teenagers who had a thirst to really explore during rumspringa and we brought them to a big city to experience life in a way that almost no Amish person had ever had seen before. The show sparked tremendous controversy. Fifty-one members of Congress decided before we had ever shot a frame of the series that it was exploitative and signed a letter of protest demanding that UPN and its parent company CBS pull the show. But Les Moonves trusted what we were doing and allowed us to make the show. The show premiered to record-setting ratings, and I would be willing to bet that of the 100 or so people who worked on that project, it is the first thing on their resume that they are ever asked about. (Feel free to e-mail me otherwise, AITC people!)
After that show, I never thought I would ever do anything about Amish people ever again. I mean we had gotten Amish teenagers to appear on “Oprah”! To be interviewed by Diane Sawyer on “Good Morning America,” to go on Jimmy Kimmel. I had done an NPR special about “Amish in the City.” While technically they were mad at me, even Congress was paying attention, and anytime 51 Republican members of Congress are pissed at you about something, I figure you’re probably doing something right. We had even gotten “rumspringa” to be an answer on “Jeopardy!”
But there were still more stories to tell. In particular there was one person I couldn’t shake. One individual who was unlike any other Amish person that I had ever met and truly one of the most extraordinary subjects I have ever worked with.
Stay tuned for the story of Mose Gingerich…
But next week: I’m Not Trying to Be a Jerk, But Most Likely All of the Things You Think You Know About Amish People Are Probably Wrong. And Here Is Why.
Daniel Laikind is the co-founder and president of development and production of Stick Figure Productions. If you have ever seen any nonfiction about the Amish, there is a good chance he produced it, as he did “Amish: Out of Order,” currently airing on National Geographic Channel, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT. He also developed, produced or executive produced lots of really interesting non-Amish projects that you can read about on his website. And despite being nominated for a bunch of prestigious awards, he has never won any of them, and yes, he is a little bitter about it. He was born, raised and currently resides on the small island of Manhattan, and you can follow his scattered musings on the world of TV, film, pop culture and his Derek Jeter obsession on Twitter (@dlaik1) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/dlaik1).
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