Filmmaker envisions documentary on Mennonites

Jun 22, 2015 by and

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A Mennonite filmmaker has announced plans for a documentary that he hopes will be the highest-profile production ever focused on Mennonites.

A female summer service worker known as a “C.O. girl” serves a patient in 1944 at Howard State Hospital in Cranston, R.I. One Mennonite influence on American society was contributing to positive change in mental health treatment. — Mennonite Library and Archives

A female summer service worker known as a “C.O. girl” serves a patient in 1944 at Howard State Hospital in Cranston, R.I. One Mennonite influence on American society was contributing to positive change in mental health treatment. — Mennonite Library and Archives

Buller Films and the Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., are in the early stages of a project that will explore American Mennonites’ impact on society and society’s impact on Mennonites.

Producer Burton Buller’s goal is to understand the role Mennonites have played in American political, social and economic culture, all through the lens of peace.

“There have been a number of films on particular aspects of Mennonite faith and practice,” he said, noting that projects have been helmed by both Mennonites and non-Mennonites. “But I am not aware of any in North America that seek to understand Mennonite faith and practice expansively in a particular geographic setting.”

Mennonite caricature

Buller believes Mennonites need to inject themselves into the national dialogue about culture because they are a subject of growing attention.

“[Prominent evangelical pastor] Rick Warren has made some statements about Mennonites, as well as other writers,” Buller said. “The word ‘Mennonite’ is becoming shorthand in the popular lexicon for expressing certain ideas.”

From parody musician Weird Al Yankovic’s 1996 “Amish Paradise” song and music video to a scene in the 2014 film Gone Girl in which a character disparages a woman’s plain appearance as looking “like a Mennonite,” Buller said society has built a Mennonite caricature.

“In the collective mindset today, there’s a certain cultural meaning which may or may not have a basis in fact,” he said. “Although we cannot control the narrative in our lives today, if we’re not part of the conversation we’ll have absolutely no impact [on understandings of Mennonites].”



While Mennonites have excelled at writing their own histories and discussing themselves, Buller hopes to depart from that typical approach and use the viewpoint of non-Mennonites. What do friends, neighbors and even critics have to say?

“I think what kind of inspired this was to do a history of the Mennonites using techniques [documentary filmmaker] Ken Burns handles so incredibly well,” Buller said. “When he does the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s not so much about the bridge but what it meant to the people around it, from the Brooklynites to the mob.”

Immigrant acculturation

Mennonites have had a presence in America, impacting daily life, since before the founding of the United States, and later waves of Mennonite immigrants continue to influence society.

“The Mennonite story is one of immigration and acculturation, and those themes are still played out in the Mennonite community all these years later,” Buller said.

Many Mennonites “have the additional baggage of a German culture that keeps calling us and not releasing us, and that is tied up in our faith experience,” he said. “You want to acculturate, and it pulls back. It takes generations to pull away, and when you do, it pulls back.”

He envisions a one- to two-hour film intended for broadcast on a major national network.

Context matters

The film’s goals align neatly with those of EMU’s Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society.

“By placing the experience of Mennonites within the social and political context of this country, we expect to offer greater insight into the contributions they have made to this culture,” said Terry Burkhalter, chair of the ACRS film committee in a news release. “By carefully examining our historical role, we hope to offer insights into challenges that yet lie ahead.”

Peace has been the launching point for many Mennonite interactions with the wider world, and Buller sees many opportunities to understand that impact.

One such example is the work of EMU faculty and the U.S. military on trauma healing and war’s sociological impact — a result of changing attitudes toward interaction with the military.

“We’ve come from the Amish not wearing mustaches because the military does so, being completely opposed to the military, to being comfortable enough to do trainings with the military on what effect the military has on a population and how to deal with that,” Buller said. “So there’s a broad swath that we can harvest on that.”

As a nonprofit organization with tax-deductible status, ACRS is spearheading a fundraising campaign to raise an initial $100,000 for the film’s pre-production phase, including research and filming at events such as the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City and the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Harrisburg, Pa.

ACRS is also hosting a July 21 consultation at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College, which will gather historians, theologians and sociologists to identify potential themes, topics and on-camera experts.

If funds come together on schedule, Buller hopes to have a rough script outline with themes and consultants finalized by January or February. With a script outline completed, a campaign for production funding will be mounted.

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