Compared with quilt-making, publishing, or preaching, filmmaking among Mennonites has not been widespread, nor particularly distinguished or distinctive.
Although films have been produced since the initial decade of the 20th century, Mennonites did not make their first films until the 1960s. Since then, the production has been limited, with relatively few producers, directors, writers, and cinematographers.
As of this writing, there is no known Mennonite-made film that has turned a profit for its producers, although some films have earned awards, some have been shown on national networks, and at least one has been syndicated by Encyclopedia Britannica. Films consequently have been heavily subsidized by individuals and reluctant institutions.
The most widely known genre in cinema literature is the feature film, but Mennonites have not made many features. (An example of a Mennonite-made feature is Merle Good's Happy as the grass was green, by Good Productions, 1974; renamed Hazel's people.) The reasons may be tradition-oriented. Mennonites have maintained a long-standing remove from the "worldly" motion picture industry, and a critical opposition to its products. In addition, Mennonites have been historically suspicious of public entertainment (amusements), so that they are not highly literate in film history. Dramatic narratives have been no easier to accept. The vivid depiction of life -- be it comic or tragic -- has been somewhat problematic for Mennonites, both on stage and screen. But if Mennonites have not been comfortable with realistic cinema, abstract representations of life have not been considered useful either. Mennonites have been a practical, literal, down-to-earth people. (An example of a Mennonite-made dramatic narrative is The weight, Sisters and Brothers Productions, 1983.) Film production has thus been limited largely to documentaries, drama-documentaries, instructional (and didactic) films, and promotional pieces.
Mennonites themselves were the initial focus of documentaries. Immediately available was the visually interesting subculture of Mennonites and Amish. (An example of a documentary film is John Ruth's The Amish: a people of preservation, 1976.) While customs offered significant signs for the explication of faith, early critics of the documentaries mentioned that these films were more sociological than evangelistic.
Subsequent documentaries featured specific Mennonite communities, histories of immigrations, overseas mission and relief work, and Mennonite meetings and conferences, These projects allowed sociological formats "to tell the story" of the Mennonite experience. (An example of the institutionally produced documentary is Mennonite Central Committee's Bangladesh plowmen, 1974, with the major work done by Burton Buller.) The drama-documentary has been used to recount historical events involving Mennonites (e.g., And when they shall ask, Dueck Productions, 1984.) Mennonites have not been reluctant to produce films to promote their own institutions and their programs. (For example, Goshen College's first of several promotional films was made in the early 1960s.)
The number of Mennonites who have earned a living by making films in production houses, church institutions, or private operations, has remained very low.
The emergence of less expensive video tape equipment is likely to give a more important role to filmmaking and filmmakers. Mennonites, however, will still have to think about what is a good film, and what a film is good for, before its filmmakers will enjoy the sense of a denominational commitment to their work.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 298-299. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Hess, J. Daniel. "Filmmaking." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F53ME.html.
APA style: Hess, J. Daniel. (1989). Filmmaking. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F53ME.html.