Plonking the Amish on a London estate

Amish: World’s Squarest Teenagers provides an enlightening and upbeat insight into teenage life.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

Television loves a fish-out-of-water story. It is a narrative that is perfectly suited to the cheap reality format which has become increasingly popular over the past decade. At first, reality television – shorn of the usual devices of entertainment such as actors, scripts, etc – sold itself on its authenticity, on simply showing people going about their daily business. Taking a fish out of water is a quick way of engineering interest without resorting to actors and scripts: simply take someone out of their familiar surroundings, preferably with some conflict of personalities and values, and watch as either sparks fly or lessons are learned.

Amish: World’s Squarest Teenagers is a classic example of the latter. It follows a group of five Amish teenagers during their Rumm-Shpringa: a period just as they turn 16 when they are given the chance to ‘run around’ and experience non-Amish life before deciding whether to commit to an austere religious lifestyle. The series takes them to the UK to meet wild British teens and compare lifestyles, this week kicking off on a South London estate.

In fairness to the documentary makers, they treated it all fairly sensibly. Rather than plonking the Amish next to the cast of Skins and making us all recoil in horror, instead they placed them with a group of street-dance performers, mostly from loosely religious backgrounds. Being mostly aspiring models and performers, the British teens were media-savvy enough to realise they were taking part in a Big Channel 4 Learning Cultural Experiment, so they played up to their roles and asked sensitive, open-minded questions about Amish life, reflecting on how it contrasted with their own. Moreover, they allowed the brightest of the Amish teens to narrate so that we didn’t have to endure either a worthily serious or jovially sneering voiceover.

One of the few – and all too rare – illuminations of these programmes is that, despite the contrivances, they actually give a good reminder of what teenagers are actually like. So despite encouraging the British kids to play up the urban grittiness of their lives they actually came across as being as sweet and unworldly as the Amish, all from loving and respectable homes and more interested in dancing and becoming famous than going wild. When showing the chaste Amish around Soho, one of the kids boasted that he couldn’t ‘reveal on camera what happens round here’ – but you actually got the sense he wasn’t too clear himself.

One of the problems of the format, however, is that you aren’t certain what moral lessons the producers want us to learn from the anti-modern Amish, who reject vast amounts of twenty-first-century customs and technology. It looked like the programme-makers wanted us to learn the values of abstinence, community spirit, hard work and hatred of material, consumerist goods. One of the girls, playing to the script, noted this at the end. Actually, what was striking about the Amish kids was how open-minded they were, despite their sheltered upbringings and religious convictions: being able to find common ground with an imam over a shared belief in one God, even if they thought Muslims’ worship of ‘some other guy’ apart from Jesus a bit odd; being childishly excited by air travel for the first time and the unarguable equality and value of all human life (in the eyes of God, obviously). They baulked a bit at street dance though, but what right-thinking person doesn’t?

On the more serious end of the documentary spectrum was this week’s Dispatches: Britain’s Witch Children, which looked at the practice of exorcism and witch-doctoring in certain churches of Britain’s African community. Prompted by allegations that witchcraft contributed to the deaths of children such as Victoria Climbié, it used undercover reporting to investigate how easily an exorcism could be obtained for a journalist purporting to be a 15-year-old girl. It discovered that much of this is done behind closed doors in patriarchal immigrant communities, motivated by sexual abuse and making money.

Unfortunately, while the programme was heavy on showing the various outrageous claims used by the witch doctors to justify their practices, it was fatally light on analysis. While it named and shamed certain unpleasant individuals – and had to imply links to more powerful establishment figures (one of them was shown shaking hands with Simon Hughes MP, but no context was offered) – it offered little insight into how widespread the practice is. It briefly raised the spectre of mass immigration from Africa and how the close-knit nature of such immigrant communities made it difficult for new arrivals to break out of these superstitious practices, but it didn’t probe any of the questions raised, such as the impact of increasingly restrictive immigration controls on illegals’ ability to integrate into mainstream society. ‘Money is the root of all evil’ does not quite cut it as journalistic insight.

Worst of all, its central claim was for a ban on branding children ‘witches’ and more monitoring and intervention into family life. Quite apart from the evident absurdity of a twenty-first-century secular society treating witchcraft as such a threat that it feels a need to pass a law banning it, this would also dangerously fudge the real issue of the Climbié case – which, as Helene Guldberg observed at the time, was a disgraceful institutional failure of a social services department, so overrun with demands to monitor and intervene in all families, that it was unable to spot this shocking and deeply unusual incident.

Ultimately you sensed you were being sold a grimmer variation on the fish-out-of-water format, where this time the viewer was the fish being asked to gaze open-mouthed at the sinister, backward world of these churches. That its subject is real life does not mean documentaries have to conform to the rules of reality TV: here we could have used some old-fashioned engagement and illumination rather than being asked to sit back and stare.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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