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August 30, 2018

Devil’s Playground

by Franz Patrick


Devil’s Playground (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

Lucy Walker’s eye-opening documentary “Devil’s Playground” follows about a half a dozen young adults who consider (or considered) themselves to be a part of the Amish community. Her subjects are participating (or participated) in rumspringa (“running around”), a time in their lives when they are allowed to leave home and break away from their strict upbringing, from changing the way they dress to partying and experimenting with drugs. It is a fascinating work, certainly educational, because it strives to pull back the curtains, even just a bit, so we can have an appreciation of a lifestyle that we may or may not agree with.

Two subjects stand out. The first is Faron, a teenager who is both a drug dealer and has an addiction to methamphetamine. He neither considers himself to be Amish nor someone who is not Amish. He makes no qualms that he is still in the process of figuring it all out. In the meantime, we look at his face, a facade that looks more like a boy than a man, and wonder about his future. Even his friend whom he lives with admits that Faron may not live for very long given his occupation. When the director allows the camera to rest on a subject’s face and captures confessionals that are direct and heartbreaking, the film is at its most effective.

The second intriguing subject is Velda, a twenty-three-year-old who admits that at the time of her rumspringa, she was suffering from major depression. She admits that she decided to partake in this tradition because she thought that by breaking the Amish rules and experiencing what the world had to offer, it would cure her depression. It did not. However, she enjoyed the freedom of being able to live her life the way she wanted to. We learn later that she has been excommunicated and shunned by her community.

Deeply humanist, the film is not interested in casting judgment. I admired that is interested in providing the audiences with facts of the curious Amish lifestyle and specific individuals’ circumstances. As for my personal feelings, I thought it was shocking, horrific even, that Amish children stop going to school after the eighth grade. They are expected to get a job.

Even adult Amish individuals admit on camera that a thorough education can lead to pride, that is encouraged that young people be satisfied with what is, not bothering to ask the reasons why, for example, things work a certain way or how. This is critical, at least in my eyes, because it puts the whole “running around” tradition into perspective.

It inspires the audience to ask: Is rumspringa really a choice or an illusion of choice? Think about it. If a community fails to provide a strong enough education so that its young people would be able to land on his or her feet after the fact, would it be fair to consider that a community was setting up a member to fail? Statistics show that the percentage remains high regarding teenagers who “choose” to go back home and become Amish via baptism. Devastating interviews here show that it is precisely because they feel they have no other choice but to revert to the comfortable, to what they already know. This is why Faron and Velda’s stories, particularly latter, are worth telling.

“Devil’s Playground” is at its most powerful when the subjects address the camera for extended periods. Velda takes us to her closet and shows us a dress. She made this dress for her wedding day and she describes how the clothing made her feel when she had put it on at the time—back when she was convinced she was going to be Amish. She puts it on for us… and she proceeds to tell us how it makes her feel now. Her confession will stay with me for a long time. It made me wish that she is out there somewhere—happy, healthy, and thriving.

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