documentaries about kids in precarious situations

It turns out that kids in brothels and Amish communities make great subjects for documentary films.

Untold millions of children in the world are born to sex workers. Tens of thousands of children in America are born to Amish families, who purposefully segment themselves off from the outside world to lead lives of radical simplicity and discipline.

Neither group chose their families. What will happen to them? Will they follow in the footsteps of their parents — either in lives of prostitution or in devout piety — or will their lives take a different path?

Two documentaries tackle these two seemingly different — yet surprisingly similar — topics.

Born into Brothels tells the incredible story of eight Calcutta children who live in a brothel, and the photographer (Zana Briski) who moved in and began teaching them to take pictures. She had intended to reach out to the prostitutes themselves, but the children latched onto her so much she couldn’t ignore their pleas for attention … her love for these children is evident throughout the film. She also didn’t plan on shooting a documentary — she invited a filmmaker friend over to India after she realized the unbelievable opportunity that existed to tell these kids’ story.

This film is not as depressing as the title suggests. The overall emotion the movie elicits is hope. Hope in the ability of the world’s poorest children when they are given a vision and license to fully utilize their creativity. Hope in the compassion of those “to whom has been given much” to share what they have been given with the less-fortunate. OK, I’ve said enough — just watch this movie.

Director Lucy Walker was given unprecedented access to the Amish community in several states to shoot and direct Devil’s Playground, a film about the choice teenagers have to either “go English” or join the Amish Church. During Rumspringa (which literally means “running around” in the native Pennsylvania dialect), Amish 16-year-olds are let loose (the have to “be back” before their 21st birthday) to experience the pleasures of the outside world and decide which world they will choose. One non-Amish teen said, “The Amish throw the best parties. They have tons of people, tons of beer.” A “preacher’s kid” begins to use and sell crystal meth. Complete debauchery is practiced by almost every Rumspringer and nearly encouraged by the rest of the Amish community. Some desire more than a “taste” of the outside world and decide to leave the Amish community for good. Most, however, move back in with their parents, begin working in the fields or warehouses or barns, and commit the rest of their lives to this devout and truly fascinating form of Christianity.
I was shocked at the tradition of Rumspringa and the actions it brings about in previously squeaky-clean Amish kids. I was shocked by the institutional loyalty among the Amish, not unlike that seen in the Catholic Church (these kids were not choosing or rejecting Jesus, they were choosing or rejecting the church). At any rate, this documentary — though fairly crudely shot and on the shorter side — is worth a look. The subjects themselves make the movie, and you’ll be drawn into their lives and their dilemma. If you’re like us, it’ll make you think about the ways more mainstream Christians disciple our children and approach the subject of salvation.

[I was also shocked to find out that nearly 90% of Amish teens join the church after Rumpspringa, and the retention rate is the highest it’s been since the late 1800s. That kills the retention rate of most mainstream Christian churches!]

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