American Colony: Meet the Hutterites
Episode 3: Rockin’ Road Trip
Aired: June 12, 2012
There are two stories unfolding alongside each other in this episode. To begin, the young people of King Ranch secure permission to attend a wedding in Canada. Secondly, the married ladies of the community are planning a weekend get-away with their husbands. Both storylines are fraught with challenges and conflict. In this reflection I will only discuss themes presented by the first strand, but also explore discoveries regarding the integrity and authenticity of American Colony‘s filming and editing process.
It is worth noting that Rockin’ Road Trip has more crude language than previous episodes, including some very tasteless double entendres. Irgnde eingezugnen Hutterer weat sich gonz zomziegn. Any down-to-earth Hutterite will probably cringe. This is, however, such a basic issue that I won’t discuss it here. Continuing as per previous posts, I assume that readers are familiar with the plot of this episode.
Being baptized is the biggest commitment you can take [sic] as a Hutterite. Once you’re baptized you’re considered a member of the church and you can get married. [Lisa]
Followed shortly thereafter by:
Claudia: Will your mother, like, gonna care [sic] if you go into a bar in Medicine Hat?
Lisa: What mommy doesn’t know, won’t hurt her.
Because if you misbehave, you will not get baptized. [Judy, Lisa’s mom]
I wanna tell all of you something before you leave. Everybody behave up there and show ‘em that we’re good, calm people. Don’t get excited about anything. [Wesley’s father]
I’m 25 and everybody likes to give me hell because I don’t have a girlfriend. [Wesley]
Hutterites are not allowed to marry a non-Hutterite, but is it really wrong if you love that person? [Wesley]
And Wesley, If you find the right one, you’ll know right away. (snaps finger) [Wesley’s Father]
So where are you going to find yourself a woman? [minor character dressed as a Hutterite.]
What comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Like most Christian churches, Hutterites who are interested in pursuing marriage must be members in good standing within their church-community. In the eyes of the Hutterite church, if a person has made a sincere commitment to Christ and his people, then, and only then, is s/he equipped to explore the possibility of marriage. On a practical level, this guideline obviously has some exceptions; several of my close friends have begun or began their courtship before taking baptism vows, but even in these cases it was done with parental, if not communal, consent.
The notion of marrying for love is relatively new, even in main-stream society, and as far as a stimulus for marital relationships is concerned, it has a dismal track record. In contrast, the premise of Hutterite marriage is based on Anabaptist and Pietist principles of purity and restraint as taught and exemplified by Christ and the apostle Paul. The 16th century Hutterite elder Peter Riedemann addressed marriage in two confessions of faith with both a forceful pragmatism and a lyrical mysticism. His primary thrust is that marriage must lead its participants closer to God (gemeinsammen Weg zu Gott, etc.) and that it symbolizes the spiritual relationship between Christ and his Church. To Riedemann, it is virtually a foreign concept to marry for love, but in our modern times it actually integrates quite well into the guiding principles he articulates. Essential questions for Riedemann, and by extension Hutterites, would be: Will this relationship espouse positive growth within the individuals involved? Will it build community? In short, will this marriage help make ‘the kingdom come’? There is little concern given to matters of romance. Considering this biblical framework, which includes the admonition to beware of relationships with people who do not share the same faith, it is absurd for a Hutterite to court a non-Hutterite. I will not address the pervasive passive/permissive attitude towards recreational dating presented in the show. There is simply no justification for it, and to save time I will leave it at that.
In Hutterite teachings, there is equal emphasis placed on the virtue of singlehood and marriage rooted in a sense of responsibility and fecundity. Our theology being what it may, however, there is a powerful expectation and social pressure in our day-to-day life to find a mate. Believe me, I know; I am a 30 year-old single Hutterite male. This cultural expectation is not entirely a negative force, because communal stability is primarily derived from having the nuclear family at its core.
What intrigues me most in this episode, is the tension between the rites of baptism and marriage. As the characters reveal, one must be baptized to get married, but this raises the question, ‘What if somebody is not yet ready to get baptized, but wants to get married?’ Are our communities faithfully discerning whether our baptismal candidates are truly Christ-followers to begin with, and then, are the candidates convinced to the depths of their hearts that the Hutterite church is where they want to put down roots?
My paternal Olvetter, who served his community as Prediger for decades, once quipped that, ‘Moniga Leit sulletn geh heiretn vordn Taufn.’ He was, of course, not advocating that the church alter its position on the order of these rites, but rather he was reflecting on the fact that some people mature quickly when they enter a solid relationship and have to rise to the responsibility that accompanies it–responsibility begets a responsible person. It also shows the truth that this doesn’t necessarily happen when somebody decides to request baptism. Hutterite young people can very well ‘behave’ for a year or two to get both hurdles out of the way, but have no inner transformation which the former rite substantiates and the second, to be successful, requires! The portrayal of baptism and marriage in this episode is tragically bereft of spiritual insight. Baptism is not so much about saying ‘no’ to the ways of the world, but rather about saying ‘yes’ to the ways of Christ. Not allowing Melvin and Lisa to get baptized solely based on bad behaviour reduces this essential rite of passage into an hollow procedure.
The media. Sigh.
In my mind, the goal of journalism is to make the world we live in a better place by exposing injustice, presenting new ideas, and teaching us about our fellow-human beings. Good journalism has integrity and does not seek a scandal for the sake of making money, nor should it misrepresent people by sensationalizing some elements while down-playing others.
That ludicrous! That’s ridiculous! [Jeff Collins in reference to accusations of staging and scripting of American Colony on CBC Radio One.]
Jeff Collins, as producer of American Colony, has vehemently denied allegations that the show was scripted or staged. Wesley Hofer, one of the shows major character’s released an open letter to the press confirming this, adding that we are “adults who are capable of making rational decisions regarding Hutterite life on King (Ranch) Colony. The notion that we were taken advantage of, as if we were innocent children, is nonsense.”
Frankly, any discerning viewer can see that the characters are performing the lines. They are obviously not comfortable with the language, and there are times, for example when Bertha is lecturing Claudia, when the actors don’t stay in character. The smile tugging at her lips is unmistakable!
There are other cinematic liberties ranging from subtle to blatantly inaccurate. One that is painfully obvious occurs at the so-called wedding after-party “in Canada”. The young ladies present, other than the primary characters, are clearly non-Hutterites! This leads me to doubt whether the young people and the filming crew even crossed the border. In fact, if they had, I’m certain that it would already be common knowledge in the Hutterite world as to which community was hosting this wedding.
A more subtle misrepresentation, though no less important, is seen when the young people are formally asking permission from their parents to go to the wedding in Canada. As Hutterites this is not how we do it. It is much more significant to ask permission from the community minister. I suppose this was not possible due to the filming contract, so this was a seemingly obvious compromise. It feels strange, and certainly not authentic, to have a ‘reality show’ about Hutterites with no interaction with the community’s spiritual leader…es hot kan Hont und kan Fuess—the rhyme and reason are lost.
Finally, in light of Mr. Collins’ protestations, it was interesting for me to encounter the following exchange in a Facebook group.
I received an email along similar lines from my friend Max Stanton, a retired anthropologist who has studied the Hutterites extensively for the last 2 decades or so. He shared an exchange he had with one of his Hutterite contacts and graciously gave me permission to quote it:
Max Stanton: E., I really felt that some of the conversations I saw on the show last night seemed contrived and forced. They just seemed to lack the comfortable naturalness found among close friends, relatives and associates who have lived in immediate contact with one-another on a daily basis all their lives. In fact, there was one place last night where it seemed to me as if the three people in a conversation (a mother and her teen-age son and daughter) were reading from cue-cards.
E: I am not sure if I know what those cards are that you just mentioned, but I do know that my cousin in the colony [King Ranch] complained that during the whole time the NGS people were there filming the series, they were paid to read directly from big hand-printed sheets of cardboard with all of what they were supposed to say written on it—and that he had trouble keeping up with the conversation because he had to keep looking over at the guy who was holding the cards—the guy who was having problems holding up new cards at the right time because he really didn’t seem to understand our Hutterite accent. Quite a few times they had to stop and start all over again because of this confusion.
MS: Ya, E. I understand that too. Those big hand-written cardboard sheets are what cue-cards are. They are arranged in special sequence and the person who displays the cue-card has the job to try to keep up with conversation to make it seem normal.
E: Sure. That’s exactly what my cousin said the guy was doing.
If Mr. Collins, and by association the National Geographic Chanel, plan on deceiving viewers, I suggest they coordinate his story much better with all parties involved.
Who is to blame for this monstrosity that does little along the lines of meaningful enrichment for humankind? As I see it, there are three complicit parties: King Ranch Colony, Jeff Collins and the National Geographic Channel. Here are my suggestions for each:
King Ranch Colony: Wesley Hofer and their leadership should write another open letter stating that their community has fallen short of Hutterite ideals, and then let us move on in hope that they will receive the help they really need. I admit to feeling deeply sorry for them, and I hope their community is not defined by this show in years to come.
Jeff Collins: A statement acknowledging questionable journalism and an apology for being untruthful about it.
National Geographic Channel: Shelve the show after it’s initial airing; it truly isn’t worth more than that. I have facilitated contact between Hutterites and TV producers from abroad twice in the last few years, and I cannot imagine how difficult American Colony will make this process in the future. Three years ago I initiated dialog between Hutterite leaders and the Mennonite film producer Burton Buller to discuss the possibility of making a new documentary about my people. Talks have continued, but hitherto nothing has developed. I suggest that, as penance, the National Geographic Chanel should sponsor this production financially while yielding content control entirely to the producer and Hutterite advisers.
I believe that a positive outcome is possible here. I welcome your thoughts and further suggestions.