The end of the world is nigh. That’s not religious dogma, but the science of global warming. Hundreds of millions will die. Perhaps billions. The mass extinction of non-human species on land and sea has already begun. But Inside the Bruderhof is a joyous look at communal living in a religious community. But then again, I’m a big fan of utopia. The flip- side of Brave New World was Aldous Huxley’s Utopia. An island nation where everything was going swimmingly until a takeover bid called democracy with an injection of neo-liberalism was just another way of saying dictatorship, and not of the proletariat. Remember onscreen when hard-bitten cop Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis looking pretty dinky in Amish costume got together in Witness. ‘Worlds apart’ was the tagline. The Bruderhof aren’t Amish, they don’t, for example, travel about in horse and cart, but director Emma Pentecost in this forty-minute documentary goes for that angle of cute otherness.
Eighteen-year-old Hannah, who plays a major role in this documentary, puts it bluntly, ‘It feels like I’m from a different time zone… Someone from the middle-ages shows up in London and stays in those ages… That way of life. I kinda feel like a foreigner.’ She probably doesn’t even realise she’s a ginger.
Ford and McGillis had to protect an eight-year-old boy in a corrupt world. Here we’ve got the before and after. Hannah is leaving the idyllic countryside setting of Darvell in Sussex and moving fifty-six miles to inner city Peckham (of Fools and Horses fame) to find work for a year, outside the community.
Hannah, the eldest of three children leaves behind her father, Bernard, and mother, Rachel, and around three hundred other people in the community she has known all her life to ask a very important question of herself: Does she want to remain part of the Bruderhof?
Ironcially, she moves into another Bruderhof community, with house parents, but in London, which isn’t the London I knew when I hitchhiked down there when I was nineteen. A London of smash and grab and no time for anything but money, money, money and fuck-you more money. This is a different kind of cloistered freedom Hanna experiences with other girls on the same quest. For the first time in her life, for example, she’s handling hard cash and toying with eight-inch heeled shoes in Rye Market.
‘One thing I have learned is how empty life is,’ she concludes. ‘And how we fill our life with stuff. It’s just so unnecessary.’
Amen to that. The question who am I? becomes what am I? (A question we all need to ask ourselves, and there’s a category of hell for Trump supporters and Tories.)
Aged 21, Hannah knows, like the other youngsters, she must commit or leave the Bruder community. Her father tells the narrator that around 25% to 30% of young people in the community do not commit to staying and do leave. That it is not a utopia or a democracy. ‘But it’s healthy, them leaving’.
‘People move where they’re told. People move internationally. It’s a way of life where you have to give up that kinda stuff, or you shouldn’t join.’
There are a few types of jobs, but everybody that is able works. And the domestic duties are taken predominantly by the females. Men work the land and workshops that produce, for example, wooden chairs and toys for classrooms and day-care centres.
Bernard says, ‘People come here and see gender segregation. But it’s no big deal. Nobody is getting paid.’
What is also noticeable to the viewer is there are no people of colour in the Bruder community. Is playing the white man, literal, metaphysical or other?
The narrator quizzes a young lady in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, ‘Have you ever questioned the division of jobs?’
Answer, ‘Yes as a young woman, as a teenager, but as I grew older I came to understand the significance of why it is, we do what we do, here.
‘I’ve never been so free in my life. Because we are under no pressure to follow anything, but to follow Christ.
‘And we do that in a free way, by taking care of our kids, taking care of other people’s kids.
‘We have our roles, it’s a traditional thing, but not a bad thing, it’s a wonderful thing.’
Hardy, aged 26, presents the flip-side of the community. The one that got away, but ‘if you ask me, I couldn’t live anywhere else’, he says, while being filmed angling.
He moved to UK, 2010. He grew up in Bruderhof. As a child he described it as ‘paradise’. Rebel, typical teenage behaviour, ‘the grass is greener’. He left with his family of five siblings when he was fourteen, with the blessing of the community. They returned, well mostly, a few of them didn’t. That didn’t make them bad people.
Hannah’s father Bernard concludes, ‘We’re not utopia. The Bruderhof works because everybody has given up their life.’
The narrator asked Hardy, ‘Why did you come back?’
Hardy, ‘I never felt the same sense of belonging anywhere else.’
Narrator, ‘Some people might say you’re running away from real life by moving back here’.
‘I don’t think the Bruderhof is an escape from reality. We’re not trying to get away from the terrible things in the world. From a selfish point of view, I think I’d probably be happier living elsewhere. I knew it’d take sacrifice. I’d have to give up what I’d have to do with my life.
After a month away Hannah has more or less made her mind up. ‘All the people of the Bruderhof have committed themselves to a cause, there’s that meaning that gets you out of bed in the morning. If it wasn’t for my faith, yeh—I’d see no point in life’.
There’s a lot of good faith in the Bruder community. It would have been interesting to see it during lockdown with the corona virus. I’m sure with green field and sunshine they’d have handled it better that most. Generally, people with strong religious beliefs live longer, happier, lives. But there’s always the bad apple. That’s the story I want to hear most. Paradise is great, but after the fall is more interesting. The four horseman of the apocalypse are already in the saddle. I believe that. I truly do. Perhaps the Bruder community can teach us something useful about the way we should live, but I think it’s too late for most of us. Perhaps for all of us.