Oh, what fresh hell is this?

pure_teaser-header-croppedThe posters have been all over bus shelters for months. The trailer’s been online and there have been a few promotional interviews.

Canadians are supposed to be all atwitter  in anticipation of a new CBC drama called Pure. It’s about Mennonites! Drugs! Crime!

The early reviews are pretty positive. But I don’t care about them; they’re not from the Mennonite press.

As the series starts on Monday, I can only judge based on the trailer. Well, I suppose I could withhold judgement until after it actually airs. But withholding judgement isn’t really one of our traditional practices and, while I will break tradition when it seems merited, this just isn’t one of those situations.

The whole thing seems to have been designed to annoy us.

I imagine a boardroom in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre with a table full of corporate supervillains disputing ways they can torture the Mennonite population of Canada. I don’t know why, exactly. But I can see it. They might have considered a cooking show in which our traditional foods were interspersed with 1970s jello salads (yes, that’s true to life but it would still have been cringe worthy).  They might have thought of doing a historical drama about southern Manitoba from the 1880s to the 1970s (or later), all full of internecine Church disputes – also true to life and highly embarrassing.

But then they saw the pitch for the “Mennonite Breaking Bad” show and they knew that they had their winner, the series that was guaranteed to arouse the ire of the largest number of Mennonites while also possibly being critically acclaimed in the world at large. They rubbed their hands and laughed maniacally.

The obvious reason for Mennonites to hate the show would be because, as Miriam Toews recently argued, there are things that we don’t want exposed to the outside world. Or even acknowledged among ourselves. That we want the world to see us as good and pure and are afraid that showing people in our communities as criminal would tarnish our reputation.There’s that.

We are pretty sensitive about our reputation.

In an interview on CBC’s Q, the lead actor Ryan Robbins assured us all that their portrayal was not meant to reflect all Mennonites (thanks for that) and that, though they “took some liberties” they did a lot of research to make it as accurate as possible. He hoped that we’d all be pleased with the show.

Ahhh, isn’t it nice that he cares?

The mystery in the collective Mennobrain right now, though, is who was the so-called Mennonite expert they hired who failed to explain that we would have problems with putting together two fairly distinct peoples and pretending they are one?

See, if there’s one thing that all Mennonites without exception hate, it is being mixed up with other kinds of Mennonites. Despite all our many divisions, we can come together in a united front to throw scorn at anyone who fails to recognize that an Old Colony Mennonite is not an Old Order Mennonite and that neither drive Amish buggies. And throw scorn we will.

It’s like making a show about Irish Catholics and giving them all the cultural trappings of Italians because – what’s the big deal? – they’re all Catholic.  They’re all the same.

We don’t think we’re all the same.

I know it’s hard to get all the nuances between all the different Mennonite groups. I wouldn’t get too annoyed if TV producers failed to capture the differences between a shunning and the administration of the ban, for instance. Or if women took a stronger leadership role than is typical. I could live with that kind of poetic license.

The images from the show suggest otherwise – the characters have last names that suggest low-German speaking heritage, but they  drive buggies like Old Order Mennonites (except not the right kind of buggy). Or at least some of them do. And the dress, well, the dress is all over the place. The inconsistencies are bewildering. It’s as if CBC is pushing us all towards some kind of new Mennohybrid world where groups who have been almost oblivious of each other’s existence for 500 years are suddenly swapping up their wardrobes and, in a great Babel-esque move, speaking in a brand new and distinct accent.

About that. The actors apparently believe they are feigning a low German accent. It didn’t much sound like plautdeutsch in the clip they played on Q but after Robbins explained that he learned it by listening to plain-dressed people speaking at the farmers’ market in Nova Scotia, I understood. He didn’t know what kind of “Anabaptist” they were but he listened in and picked up the accent from that. Yup, in Nova Scotia those could quite possibly have been Old Order Mennonites or Amish who would have been speaking Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect actually quite different from the plautdeutch he was trying for. Not that the accent sounded Pennsylvania Dutch either. I’ve lived among both; this was something new.

Extensive research?

It doesn’t take extensive research to know that about five hundred years separates the Old Colony Mennonites who travel back and forth from Mexico to Canada (a few having become involved in the drug trade), and the Old Order Mennonites driving buggies around Waterloo county.  Both peoples have rich cultures and I’m sure both communities have their share of problems. That doesn’t make them the same.

They’re separate groups. Each separate from the world in its own unique unwordly way. One group (Old Order) originated in Switzerland or South Germany via the United States, taking on the moniker in 1889. These ones have no ties to speak of to Mexico. The other (Old Colony), came from the Netherlands by way of Prussia, Russia, Manitoba and then Mexico (and Paraguay, Bolivia and Belize). The latter is actually a larger group in Canada right now (Mennonite World Conference cites about 12,000 baptized Old Colony Mennonites and about 3,000 Old Order Mennonites, plus another thousand or so other “horse and buggy” groups who don’t call themselves Old Order).

I am probably the most rankled by the switch-up of the women’s dress and head coverings.  There is no way that, in the course of their research, the series’ producers never saw images of Mexican Old Colony women in their pleated dresses and wearing their particular head coverings. But I guess these women just didn’t “look Mennonite” enough for the show. They wanted an uncompromising black dress (never mind that Mennonite women of all stripes wear colours), the starched and stiff head covering unique to Mennonites of Swiss descent (and Amish), and the well-loved bonnet.

Because, as we all know, nothing says Mennonite quite like a bonnet.

I haven’t written much about the Mennonites from Mexico (not at all, really) because that particular diaspora is not a part of my own heritage. My father’s grandmother was, I am told, very keen on the idea of moving there but her husband refused (they were Sommerfelder). I can’t say I am sorry. Had they gone to Mexico, my grandfather would never have met my grandmother, married her and brought my father into the world. My mother would not have met my father and, well, there would be no one in the world to write Mennonite-themed cocktail recipes.

Which would, of course, be a travesty for all of us.


Today’s cocktail is a mule, given the theme of the TV show in question. Because of the transnational nature of the Mennonite mule, I was torn as to whether to honour the Mexican or the Canadian. But I went with Mexican as I think it is the story more neglected. The drink is not very different from a Mexican Mule. It’s not really very Mennonite but then, I have a feeling that the TV show isn’t going to be very Mennonite either.

The Mennonite Mulemule

  • 1 1/2 oz tequila
  • 1/2 oz lime juice
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • 1 dash rhubarb bitters
  • 4 oz ginger beer

Shake first 3 ingredients with ice. Pour into a glass with ice (or copper mule mug if you have one). Top with ginger beer.

This will be perfect for our Monday night drinking game: have one ready when tuning in to the new CBC show and drink every time you notice a detail about Mennonite life that Pure gets wrong. There may be a lot of Mennonite hangovers on Tuesday.

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10 thoughts on “Oh, what fresh hell is this?

  1. Great preview. I heard the Q interview too. Not much “research” but if their expert advisor is *oh ba fine*, they could pull it off. Accents are so critical but maybe here it can be a bit generic. For the future, a half-hour ensemble comedy of quirky schlopemetzes set in Steinbach or Altona could be truly hilarious. Not?

    Accents: US&CAN TV/Film has failed on accents. Eg., All Russians still sound like “moose und schqvirrel” bad guys, Boris & Natasha. Exception: Mike Meyers. If HE did an uber earnest prairie Menno twang, it would be TERRIBLE FONNY, yet.

    For me, any show that does not have ruthless killers rappelling out of choppers screaming go! go! go! before getting blown to catsh*t and ending up in chunks on the slab of a sexy forensics genius (deep, rasping breath)…ANYTHING that is not that, is ganz gut.

  2. Well said, top to bottom. Also, the Mennonite Mule is delicious! Used FeverTree ginger beer which adds a lovely spicy kick.

  3. And just to confuse things further, if they were supposed to be Old Colony, Funk is a Swiss-German Mennonite name, not a Russian Mennonite name. So if Robbins was listening to PA Dutch speakers for his accent, he might have been trying to pick up the right accent for his name even if it wasn’t what the show was going for.

    However, according to my Dad (whose parents were Old Order until he was two, and grew up with lots of Old Order neighbours) Funk isn’t an Old Order Mennonite name, at least not in Ontario.

    Near as I can tell, the only reason the name Funk was used was so the cop could use that “Funkytown” nickname. *sigh*

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