The Lifetime Movie Network has prepared a film version about the murders of five Amish girls in a Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, schoolhouse and the forgiveness the families showed for the killer and his wife. Unfortunately, the made-for-television movie, due to be shown on Sunday, March 28, at 8:00 PM Eastern time (U.S.), misrepresents the real story, messes up some of the details, and, most unfortunately, distorts Amish beliefs about forgiveness.
Herman Bontrager, an Amish man from Akron, also in Lancaster County, was critical of the film. He had acted as a spokesman for the Amish immediately after the tragic shooting three and one-half years ago. “It didn’t happen that way,” he said after watching the brief movie trailer on the film website.
The press release for the movie from LMN says, “Deeply conflicted and unable to forgive the gunman and his family, Ida [the mother of one of the murdered girls] is tempted to leave the only life she’s ever known before re-embracing her faith.” While the families of the victims were, of course, devastated by the tragic losses of their daughters, none were tempted to leave their faith. Ida, in the movie, also confronts the wife of the killer and denies that she can forgive what has happened.
Such actions would contradict the essence of Amish beliefs. Of course, faith-shaking crises and questioning core beliefs make far better movies than would an accurate depiction of the ways the Amish really reacted to the events. The forgiveness that so caught the attention of the world had to be remade by Hollywood—corrupted.
The movie was based, at least in theory, on the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher. The three prominent authorities on Amish society researched their book quickly after the tragedy and it was published a year later, to many positive reviews. However, the three scholars have distanced themselves from the movie. The publisher of their book, Jossey-Bass, owns the movie rights, so they had no control over its resale for the production of the film.
The three authors released a statement last week that indicates their disapproval about exploiting the tragedy in a movie. They, of course, know that the Amish do not approve of movies or television, and that the ones living in the Nickel Mines area would be extremely sensitive about the subject. The scholars refused to cooperate with the production company. Evidently, their share of the proceeds from the sale of the movie rights, like their royalties from the book, will go to the Mennonite Central Committee for its programs providing aid to children who suffer from wars and natural disasters.
“Out of respect to our friends in the Amish community and especially those related to the Nickel Mines tragedy, we declined the producer’s requests to consult and assist in the development of a film,” they said in their statement. The producers also contacted Mr. Bontrager seeking his assistance, but he too refused to consult with them. After he looked at the film website, Bontrager disagreed with the statement that the media was critical of the Amish stance about forgiveness. He found, over three years ago, that reporters were “in awe” of their beliefs, taken straight from the Sermon on the Mount, that people must forgive others if they hope to have God forgive them.
He admitted that some of the Amish did have to struggle with their feelings of grief after the tragedy, as any normal individuals would do after the murders of their family members. They did not deny their emotions, and they were all aware of the normal processes of dealing with tragedy like that. “But I am not aware of anyone, to me or anyone I’ve talked with, who almost left their faith,” he said.
He noted that the actors playing the Amish people are dressed incorrectly in the movie, but the bigger issue, for him, is that the film doesn’t portray their gentleness accurately. He said that, in addition, the Amish believe in telling the truth, and fictionalizing or distorting what actually happened disturbs them. Furthermore, they don’t like to be depicted in photographs or films, and they really dislike publicity, particularly about such a tragic, recent event.
Presumably the Amish forgive the movie producers for having made still another exploitative movie about them, though it must be difficult. Twenty five years ago, the movie “Witness,” which was filmed in Lancaster County, offended them because of its inaccuracies and attempts to make money off of them. Hollywood patterns have not changed.