The Dangers of a Date With the Outside World

MAKING a documentary about Amish teenagers abusing drugs and alcohol presents some obvious problems. Young people from a community that won't use electricity aren't so eager to be shown on camera using crystal meth. And the Amish religion forbids picture-taking, anyway.

So "Devil's Playground," which has its premiere Thursday night on Cinemax, is something of a coup. Lucy Walker, a first-time director, talked her way into the extremely private world of an Old Order Amish community in LaGrange County, Ind., to follow a group of young people as they suddenly encountered the outside world.

The Anabaptist faith practiced by the Amish includes the belief that only adults who have made a conscious choice to join the church should be baptized. In this strict sect, the result is rumspringa — "running around" in Pennsylvania Dutch. When children in Amish families turn 16, they are free to experience the world. For some this means listening to rock music or driving cars; for others it means getting drunk or high. For some it lasts a week, for others years, and some, of course, don't join the church at all. But more than 90 percent do, according to the film, and the Amish take them in whenever they are ready.

The documentary's producer, Steve Cantor, went to Lancaster, Pa., in 1998 with the idea of making a film about rumspringa. Just after he arrived, the police busted a drug ring in which two young Amish, along with members of a motorcycle gang, were dealing cocaine to Amish teenagers. His project quickly went from difficult to seemingly impossible. "It's not so much that they don't want to talk about the problems," he said in a recent interview. "They don't want to talk about anything."

Mr. Cantor hired another filmmaker, Toby Oppenheimer, to continue the legwork. Mr. Oppenheimer spent weeks working on an Amish farm before he gave up. "There was a time where I just said, `I'm not sure if it's going to happen in Lancaster,' " Mr. Oppenheimer said.

Ms. Walker, already fascinated with the Amish, was introduced to Mr. Cantor and picked up the thread in Indiana. For seven months she went from person to person, keeping her camera in the trunk. When she did find people who would cooperate, she had them sign explicit consent forms (also a problem in a religion that doesn't allow contracts) to make sure that they knew what they were getting into. Still, her subjects often backed out. One rebellious girl who talks openly in the film about her partying would no longer talk on camera after she joined the church.

"Nobody was sure that we'd ever get any Amish people on camera unless we tricked them," Ms. Walker said. "I could have made a one-joke film about Amish kids going nuts, but I always wanted to avoid that."

The images she captured can seem bizarre to outsiders. Amish girls in stiff dresses and bonnets talk about joining the church and getting married while they smoke and hold beers. Boys talk about their futures as Amish men while listening to hip-hop and driving drunk in their buggies.

The film's central character, Faron Yoder, appears to be on a particularly dangerous course. He not only uses drugs but is arrested for selling them.

Faron, who is 18 when we first see him, invites the camera deep into his world. Ms. Walker films him parceling out drugs into little baggies to sell and trying to sober up on his own in a friend's trailer, completely naïve about the effects of the drugs on his body.

What Ms. Walker found most compelling about Faron was not his involvement with drugs but his longing to join the church and become a preacher like his father. He was in over his head, and he was alone in trying to find his way back.

Donald B. Kraybill, an authority on the Amish who teaches at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., said that built into the Anabaptist tenet of adult baptism is a belief in free will and a faith that the children will want to join the church. "They honor that with integrity," he said. "It shows how the church respects adult choice and how the church grants freedom." Mr. Kraybill emphasized that until they are baptized, young people are not Amish. "People ask, Why doesn't the church crack down? One point church leaders made in 1998 was that it was not Amish youth involved in drugs." The young people in the film had not yet joined the church. "Sometimes it's hard for outsiders to grasp that," he said.

One young woman in the film, Velda Lehman, left the church to seek an education and now attends a Christian college in Texas. She hopes that the film will open up a discussion among the Amish. "If some of these issues would have been dealt with, living that kind of lifestyle would be something more appealing," she said. "I think that this video can be an open door for restoration and healing."

For that to happen, though, the Amish would have to see the film. But most will not. As "Devil's Playground" has traveled the festival circuit, including screenings at Sundance in January and the TriBeCa Film Festival this month, some teenagers and even Old Order church members have quietly attended, Ms. Walker said. But it's not as if she can hold an outreach screening.

"The people that haven't seen it so far are massively threatened," she said. "What came out of the screenings for the ones who have seen it is that the response was wonderful. They thought we treated the Amish sympathetically. They wanted to say prayers for Faron, and they wanted to write to his parents."