By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
A local professor is about to get some national face time through his work on a new PBS documentary titled “The Amish” set to premiere Tuesday on PBS stations across the country.
Steven Nolt, a professor of history at Goshen College and one of the foremost authorities on Amish history and thought in the nation, served as both an academic advisor and interviewee for the new documentary, the latest installment in the award winning PBS series “American Experience.” The show is being hailed as one of the most intimate portraits of contemporary Amish faith and life ever captured on film.
“This was a project that was envisioned by David Belton, a British filmmaker who has done a number of different films, one of which is a documentary about the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda,” Nolt said of the origins of the new documentary. “He’s someone who has experience in working with challenging topics in a sensitive way, and I think for him, one of the things that interested him most about this project was trying to understand a culture that’s often misunderstood, and also misrepresented in visual media. They won’t appear on camera, and they don’t like to be filmed or photographed, which has really limited over the years the number of projects that have been done on Amish life. So I think it was a challenge for him to make a film about people who don’t want to be filmed.”
As for his own participation in the film, Nolt said that while traditionally he has simply declined to participate in such projects out of respect for the beliefs of the Amish community, in this case he felt this particular project deserved some additional consideration.
“From time to time through the years I’ve been contacted by people who wanted to make a film about the Amish, and I’ve always just declined right away because they’ve always just seemed like they were something that wouldn’t work, or they were people who didn’t seem to have the best interests of the Amish at heart,” Nolt said. “For this particular project I was actually contacted first by a colleague of mine, Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. The filmmakers had actually contacted him first, and I think he also had the initial reaction of not wanting to participate. But as he talked with them, he quickly gathered that these folks were people who had really done their homework, they understood the challenges, and they were going to do something with integrity. So he agreed to work with them, and one day when we were talking, he said if they ever did end up contacting me, these are people that I can really trust.”
As Kraybill predicted, Belton would eventually end up contacting Nolt seeking his expertise, and thanks to Kraybill’s testimonial to the sincerity of the project, Nolt agreed to participate — though not without some stipulations of his own.
“I did agree to participate, but I did not provide them with the names of any Amish people,” Nolt said. “I have a lot of Amish friends, but I never give out their names out of respect for their beliefs. So the Amish folks that the team contacted both locally and in other areas were all people that they contacted on their own.”
When asked what it is about Amish culture that has kept him so invested in its study for more than 20 years, Nolt said it really comes down to his fascination with how they as a people have been able to live surrounded by the modern world, yet remain largely untouched by it. Over those 20 plus years, Nolt has produced an impressive collection of books, research papers, lectures and journal articles aimed at closely examining the intricacies of Amish faith and life.
“I think one of the most interesting things for me is the fact that Amish people are living in the modern world in ways that are very different than how most of the rest of us live,” Nolt said. “They are not isolated, but they are clearly making different choices on how to live in the modern world. So I think it’s a helpful thing to have that other perspective, and to look at how people living in my community are doing it in a different way than I am, but still in a way that enables them to be happy and fulfilled.”
As for his take on the actual filming of the documentary, Nolt said it was definitely a new experience for him, though one that continually impressed him with its air of professionalism and integrity.
“When it came time for me to be filmed, they came here to Goshen back in May or June of last year and interviewed me on camera for about five hours, and then again in August for about three hours,” Nolt said. “Overall, I was just continually impressed with the care and thoughtfulness that the writer and producer had, and the questions and concerns that they raised. So while I haven’t seen the film yet, I expect it will be a good one.”
“The Amish” airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on PBS.