Teenagers stream in and reach for bottles of beer with both hands while a deafening band tries AC/DC covers with two chords. The alcohol leads to cocaine and the party hits a fever pitch before boys and girls begin to pair off for the night. This could be a typical high school get-together if it were not for one striking characteristic: These kids are Amish. Half the vehicles parked outside are horse-and-buggies, the girls are wearing bonnets, and just before dawn, while the party still rages in the barn, the parents and pre-teen siblings will set to milking the cows. They'll even smile as they offer a pail for their teen's guest to throw up in.
The Amish are Anabaptists, which means that they don't baptize babies at birth, preferring their adherents to join the church when they are old enough to make an informed decision about committing to the religion for life. Therefore when each child turns 16 they can experience the outside "English" world with all its temptations -"the devil's playground" - in order to make their decision. This period in their life is known in their Pennsylvania Dutch language as rumspringa, which literally translates as "running around." It ends whenever an individual feels ready - typically between the ages of 18-22 - to make the decision that will determine the rest of their lives. Do they join the church and commit to being Amish for the rest of their lives, or do they turn their backs on their families and religion and live on their own in "modern" society? If they choose to be Amish, they must give up all their "English" privileges - selling their cars and radios and jeans to their younger siblings, and submitting without question to Amish regulations for the rest of their lives.
The Amish do not tolerate homosexuality, the men must work as farmers or doing manual labor, while women do not work outside the home and bear as many children as physically possible (the average is more than eight). Cars, electricity, TV, movies, telephones, sports, education beyond eighth grade, music, and musical instruments are all banned. All but the most liberal settlements don't even allow bicycles because they make travel too easy and enjoyable. Women are never allowed to cut their hair - not even to trim a lifetime's worth of split-ends. It is shocking to note that the Taliban's regulations and the Amish ordnung, or rulebook, have startling similarities - although of course the Amish, unlike the Taliban, are serene and pacifist. There is a great deal of love, support, certainty, direction and wisdom to gain by submitting to the ordnung. The alternative is to make their own way outside the community. But while the freedom of the outside world is intoxicating, striking out is no mean feat when they know so few "English" people and their one-room-schoolhouse education stopped at eighth grade. Eventually 85-90% of Amish youth will choose to be Amish - the highest retention rate since the founding of the Amish church in 1693.
Our focus is rumspringa casualty Faron Yoder. When we meet him he is trying to quit using "crank" - aka crystal methamphetamine - to become a preacher like his father. But his addiction spirals and leads to dealing, until he's busted and must choose whether to accept his punishment and go to jail for life, or to turn police informant and join the church for life. Scarcely surviving that, he falls in love with an Amish girl - beautiful Emma Miller, age 16. But she decides to move to Florida, and once more he faces the dilemma of which life to choose. To be American or to be Amish. To be a free individual without a community, or to be a part of a strong community without an individual identity.
DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND is an ambitious documentary that offers a unique experience inside an American subculture that has scarcely been captured on film. These teenagers are not subject to Amish rules, including their restrictions on being photographed, and so they have dared to share their world with us. A handful of elders from more liberal Amish communities, perturbed by rumspringa, also agreed to be filmed. The film revolutionizes our understanding of this extraordinary community, and, in our own age of the Columbine massacre, sheds light on how all the rest of us come of age.
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