I have spent days thinking about it and finally decided to go for it. I will be producing an episode-by-episode personal reflection series based on the ‘reality show,’ American Colony: Meet the Hutterites, directed by Jeff Collins and aired on the National Geographic Channel. When we first learned of the show, I helped put together a general response to be posted on hutterites.org, but it has become evident that a deeper exploration is possible, if not required.
I have seen the first three episodes. I will review each episode, choose what I believe to be the major themes, and respond from a Hutterite perspective. The view will be my own, and not everybody may appreciate it. My exploration may be too cerebral for some tastes, but that is my temperament and all that I can offer at this point. And as we discuss ideas, my views may change–that is why we must do this: to learn from each other. My approach to these issues will probably not bring any solid answers, but as we fumble with this Rubik’s Cube, I hope some insights and understanding will result. When challenges of this type arise, they present us with the opportunity to reflect on what we are doing well, but also call us to think about where we are struggling. And we do struggle.
I am committed to working hard at being gentle, gracious and non-judgmental. This may not always be possible. Kyrie eleison.
I will ‘air’ my general thoughts here in this post. They will be added as they unveil themselves/rear their ugly heads, so check back occasionally.
I welcome your questions, specific and general, regarding the show here in this post.
One of my first impressions of the show, beyond seeing the National Geographic website, was the repeated comment by Jeff Collins, the shows’ director, that “No one has ever filmed inside a Hutterite community, ever! This is the first time…being able to have a glimpse inside their world.” (MTPR News) Usually it was stated in such a way that implied, “And you’re not going to believe what we’ve got to show you!” Such a statement is of course incredibly misinformed and unfortunately established a negative perception of the show for me. Does Mr. Collins not have access to Google? This is a basic fact, and caused me to think, ‘If he doesn’t get this right, what else will he miss?’
In case you are wondering, the two most popular films are To care and not to care: The Hutterites (1984), directed by Burton Buller and The Hutterites (1964), directed by Colin Low. Both of them are dated, but still warrant a viewing. In addition to these documentaries, there was even a movie (yes, a movie!) made on a Hutterite community in the 1940s! Parallel 49 was filmed in 1940 and released in 1941, even predating the documentaries.
In my training as an adjudicator I have always been coached to focus on ‘three stars and a wish’. Here is my first star: This show has initiated a dialog among our people. I hear young people talking about what it means to be a Hutterite. I hear Prediger confessing that we are not perfect. Some people say the show makes them uncomfortable because some things are as they see them; others are dismayed at the divide they see between their Hutterite reality and the one the show portrays. So, even from a distorted reality show, good things can emerge.
In all three of the episodes I have seen to date there has been plenty of evidence that the actors did not know their lines well enough. Occasionally the stumbling and blatant unfamiliarity with the English language had me squirming in my seat. And giving an ultimatum with a grin pulling at the corners of the mouth is never convincing.
Schadenfreude and what?
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of American Colony for me personally is not the series itself, but some of the reactions to it that I encounter. What irks me most is the indulgence in Schadenfreude by former Hutterites. I have heard several variations of, “There have been enough documentaries made to show how Hutterite life should be, now finally there is one that shows it how it really is.” I can’t even seem to find adequate words to describe the negative emotions that rise up in me; as far as I can tell it’s a strange concoction of pity, humiliation, anger and compassion. I have to firmly tell myself that we all have to come to grips with ‘where from’ and ‘how’ we have come to the place we stand now; I admit I would much rather firmly tug their ears. Yes, we have some rough characters, but we also have many gentle people. I fully realize that some people don’t want to live in a Hutterite community–and they shouldn’t; I give them credit for making the decision to leave–but if we can’t abide in christian forbearance, let us at least not forget basic human decency. That said, if the hurt and bitterness that I sense is caused by poor leadership, broken relationships where leaving was the only way out, or anything of this sort, I am truly sorry for your pain. Pax vobiscum!
Secondly, and infinitely more fascinating and perplexing to me, is one common reaction from Hutterite young people. I say one common reaction here because I have run into several. A surprising number have vehemently decided not to watch the show after seeing the clips on the National Geographic website. I know for a fact that some of these kids watch other shows of equal or lesser moral standards, so what’s going on here? Which psychological mechanisms kick in here? Hmmm…
I can’t help but like her. Character analysis coming soon…