I was initially excited to find that we actually got the National Geographic Channel on one of our cable boxes, and I would be able to follow this show. I was a bit surprised that any colony would agree to the format– a ten-episode, in-depth, intensively live-filmed program. That’s more risk and self-exposure than most people would ever feel comfortable agreeing to, and it’s the kind of thing that always ends badly for someone, right? I’m not talking about the Kardashians here, I’m talking about the Loud family. And all their successors.
But because it was National Geographic, I expected something that would be responsible and illuminating, even if it ran a little more towards “raw material” than a standard documentary. I have kept my eyes open for more information about the Hutterites since I first read a beautiful article in the National Geographic, as a kid. Until recently, information has been fairly hard to come by. Why am I so interested? Difficult to say, exactly, but I think it comes down to two things: 1)I’m interested in anything which preserves a tradition and 2)I’m interested in any attempt to live the gospel in a radical, whole-hearted way.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take more than ten minutes of watching to realize this show wouldn’t contribute much to my knowledge or understanding. Instead of honest raw material, what I got was McRealityShow, Hutterite style. It really was a bit of a jaw-dropping experience, that first episode, and while I was pretty surprised that the colony members had participated in it, what really shocked me was that NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MADE IT. Welcome to the end-times. The Hutterites can repent (and appear to be doing so at break-neck speed), but I doubt the good name of National Geographic can be retrieved, having crossed a line like this.
What a missed chance. Here was a group of people willing to share their heritage, their real lives, perhaps even their real struggles and misgivings. Maybe we got a few glimpses of those things, but they were hard to recognize. What we mainly got was a media caricature of what such a group might be like– a crude template with predictable roles imposed on “characters” who are actual human beings. The pretty girl who wants it all and believes she deserves it. The good girl. The smart, modern guy who has to deal with a lot of throwbacks. The workaholic husband. The rebellious, angry teen. The abusive father. The lazy drunk.
The sad thing is, it made a mockery of real issues. How do people respond to an extremely authoritarian church and family structure, especially in a context where it’s possible to choose something else? What is the purpose of education, and what are people’s real attitudes toward it? How do roles and opportunities for men and women differ, and why? Why preserve traditional dress, or uniform dress– is it important? I wanted to know, but I didn’t find out. What I got was B-movie music and “THE ELDERS!!!” It made me think of Return of the Archons.
I kept watching the show, because I was following the discussion on line, and because I watch everything Hutterite, on principle. I saw “Holy Matrimony” in a movie theater, for crying out loud. But it was an effort, most of all because it was BORING. As soon as you recognize the pattern, you know exactly how it plays out. I found out again what popular media thinks of religious people, oddly dressed people, people without make-up, people who don’t go to college, people who work on farms, people who speak English as a second language, etc. I found out very little about King Ranch, and the people who live there.
I’m not even going to get into the issue of whether most of this was fake. It’s some of the worst film-making I’ve ever seen, but if it WASN’T fake, it reached an unimaginable low, since at least eighty percent of it positively screamed “staged and scripted.” If you can make real life look that phony– well, you’ve got a unique gift. But fake as it was, somebody co-operated in making it: you can’t get ten edited hours of all-Hutterites, all the time, without some Hutterites showing up.
My first guess–that whoever agreed to this had unwarranted confidence in the name of National Geographic, and little experience of what “reality” shows consist of, not to mention their inevitable fallout–was not, I think, entirely correct. Things seem to be a lot more complicated. I suppose some people were genuinely misled, but enough people did enough ridiculous stuff on camera that it’s got to be more than that. If you’ve read the protest letters that the King Ranch members have supposedly written, you begin to get a hint of some of the undercurrents.
You also get a clear indication from these letters that anywhere along the line, it was possible to say NO. The question of why people didn’t, individually or collectively, is the most fascinating thing I take away from this program. I don’t really know the answer, but that’s what I’m going to keep listening for: I suspect, in a lot of ways, it’s really the heart of the matter.