Director returns to alma mater
After two years of research and filming “Being Mennonite in America,” the project led producer and director Burton Buller back to Tabor College.
The documentary centers on the history of Mennonites in the U.S., and their experiences integrating with American society.
“One of the things I’m asking Mennonites is what they see as the value of being Mennonite in American society today,” Buller said.
The two-year project was brought to Bethel College because he was searching the historical archives.
Among the resources from local archives is the first-hand account, recorded by a historian at Bethel College, about Kansas Mennonite John Schrag. Schrag was nearly hanged for refusing to purchase war bonds during World War I.
Buller took the opportunity to visit his alma mater during its homecoming weekend, and ended up meeting with a Bible professor there.
“He had some creative ideas about the state of Mennonite theology, along which a lot of the professional and economic endeavors rest,” he said. “They form the foundation for a lot of these other activities.”
He also listened to the message of Tim Unruh, owner of Menno Beans in Hillsboro.
“It’s his chance to bring attention to the importance of being Mennonite, of the education, culture, and values,” Buller said.
The Mennonite Church originated from Swiss members of the Anabaptist denomination, practicing pacifism and a strict religious code. They first came to the Western Hemisphere during the 1600s and early 1700s to escape persecution.
While they have roots in America dating back before the Revolutionary War, Mennonites remained largely isolated until World War I, he said.
During the war, there was increased pressure to support the cause through military service and buying bonds. This influence forced Mennonites into a supporting role, but it also opened them more to American ideals, Buller said.
“For the first time, they recognized that they were Americans,” he said. “They recognized they would be American, but they would never be fully mainstream.”
During World War II they served primarily in noncombatant roles, or bolstered the work force to account for those who enlisted, he said.
Buller’s motivation to attempt a major documentary about the Mennonite lifestyle in America was that the subject has received very little attention, he said.
“They’ve been enamored with the Amish, but with Mennonites, not so much,” he said. “Lately, there have been more and more references to Mennonites in popular culture, they are beginning to pay attention, but it’s usually badly misinformed.”
Buller has done several projects with topics relating to Mennonites, but this was the first focused solely on them.
His goal is to air the project on public television, or a major network like ABC. If he can’t originally secure a network to broadcast it, the next step is to submit the documentary to award shows to gain exposure.
“My role as a documentarian is to tell what is,” he said. “You always come to it with a certain bias, but you try to moderate that.”