A new crime drama by the Canadian Broadcasting Company entitled “Pure” features drug-trafficking Mennonites in Southern Ontario. Interviews with cast members have emphasized the inspiration for the story comes from actual events that have been widely reported. A “Fifth Estate” telecast about the Low German “Mennonite Mob” can be see at http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/40-years-of-the-fifth-estate/mennonite-mob. In April 2004 Saturday Night Magazine had a feature story on the Mennonite Mob (https://web.archive.org/web/20151006210521/http://caj.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/mediamag/awards2005/(Andrew%20Mitrovica)%20Saturday%20Night%20Magazine.htm), and periodically news stories show up on the theme, for example the story from 2014 at: http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/mennonites-linked-to-mexican-cartels-established-cocaine-smuggling-pipeline-near-alberta-border-police.
As my friend, Armin Wiebe, wrote in a Facebook post, “It’s a tightly written, relentless crime drama.” On that level I think it succeeds very well. I’m not embarrassed by the writing or the acting.
Others will have to speak to the “Low German” accent of the actors; I suspect it’s somewhat off. One “Pure” actor in an interview on CBC spoke of listening to Mennonites at a farmers’ market in Nova Scotia. Now there aren’t that many Mennonites in Nova Scotia; he may have been listening either to Holdeman Mennonites (two congregations near Waterville and Tatamagouche) or some Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites near Truro that came from Belize.
As a historian I do have some problems with numerous aspects of the presentation. Reading comments on the “Pure” Facebook page, it’s clear that many people are confused about Mennonites and their history. This drama doesn’t help the confusion. For Mennonites, the show has many distracting elements because of the obvious “mistakes” in confusing various Mennonite cultural and historical streams. The producers of “Pure” try to avoid the issue by identifying the group as “Edenthaler,” a group that doesn’t exist, though they are identified as Low German Mennonites with connections to Mexico. However the producers then proceed to mix the cultures of Low German Mennonites, Old Order Mennonites and Old Order Amish in many visual aspects of the drama.
For me the horses and buggies are a complete distraction from the story line. No Low German Mennonites in Canada use horses and buggies. I guess it makes a certain kind of visual statement, but only the Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups still use this form of transportation, and their history has no relationship to Mexico except for the most recent decades when some Amish schoolteachers have provided some assistance to Old Colony Mennonite schools.
Some of my concerns about the show lessened when I saw how pointless the horses and buggies were to the plot. I felt it less likely than I first feared that the general public will confuse this story with the “real” Old Order Mennonites and Amish in Southern Ontario.
By and large the physical appearance of the players is also confusing for anyone familiar with Mennonite culture. The men are clean shaven and sort of look like Old Order Mennonites, except that they’re wearing Amish-style straw hats. The women look much more Amish in their clothing and bonnets, with mostly solid color dresses. They look nothing like traditional Low German Mennonite women in their clothing or headgear.
I suspect this was done because Old Order Mennonites are more quickly identifiable as “Mennonite” in the wider Canadian culture than traditional Low German dress would be. Is that a good enough justification for deliberately “borrowing” Old Order Mennonite culture? I would say no.
There are more problems with the worship and polity of the Edenthalers. The senior clergyman in any traditional Mennonite group is the Bishop or Ältester. Among the Edenthalers it seems to be the “Preacher.” Interestingly, Noah Funk is chosen by lot, a practice not used by Low German Mennonites, but only by Mennonites of the Swiss-South German historical tradition. The way the lot process was run was also incorrect; only a Bishop ordains, and he would have been the person checking the books indicating which man had the slip of paper.
Additionally, although the Edenthaler appropriately located women on one side of the church and men on the other during worship services, they allowed women freedom to speak in the service. This would not happen in a traditional service, which is much more stylized and formal in how things are done than was indicated here.
Noah Funk’s ploy to introduce the child, Ezekiel, as a nephew, would not have worked in a traditional Mennonite community. People in close-knit Mennonite communities know relatives and family lines, and would have known of the existence of any such child.
I’m sorry the CBC didn’t adhere more closely to the research they must have done. Adulterating the Low German culture with Old Order Mennonite imagery doesn’t help the plot, and simply confuses the general public.
Through my experience with Gadfly: Sam Steiner dodges the Draft, I have some understanding of what dramas “based on a true story” can lead to — what was true and what was fiction? The CBC could have done a better job on that part of the production.
I’ll enjoy the rest of the series for the drama, but not for its informational value about Mennonites.
If you are interested in a more accurate historical account of Mennonites in Ontario, see In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.