Saturday 17 August 2019

Inside the Bruderhof preview: This frustrating look at a radical religious group lacks real bite

Where's Louis Theroux when you need him? 

Inside the Bruderhof, BBC
Inside the Bruderhof, BBC

Pat Stacey

“Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can,” sang John Lennon. Sorry, John, I’m afraid that just wouldn’t work for me.

It seems to be working, at least on the surface, for those living Inside the Bruderhof (BBC1, 11.05pm tonight), a 300-strong community of  “radical Christians”, part of a bigger, worldwide community formed in the 1920s, who live their lives in accordance with the Old Testament in pastoral Darvell, just 75 miles away from the hustle and bustle of London.

“I own absolutely nothing,” 30-year-old husband and father-of-three Bernard Hibbs says in Karen Emsley’s documentary. “I don’t even own my own clothes.”

The clothes the members of the community wear are bought (when they’re not being made by the women) in bulk and kept in a clothes department.

If Bernard wants a pair of shoes or a jacket, he just requests them. Ask and ye shall receive. The same principle applies to the food, which is mostly grown within the community. Everyone owns everything, therefore no one owns anything.

Families live in small groups, sharing a living room and kitchen, but everyone eats, prays and sings (there’s a lot of singing) together, twice a day, in a big dining hall.

You won’t find a single mobile phone, television, radio, computer or game console here — although a copy of The Spectator pops up at one point, so they obviously keep informed of what’s happening in the wider world.

And it’s not limited to no possessions; there’s no rich, no poor, no homelessness, no crime, no debt, no mortgages, no pensions, no jobs and no wages. Everyone works for free in the name of the common good.

“We doubt there’s going to be money in heaven,” says Bernard, “so why not do away with it here?”

Actually, they’ve not done away with it completely. The community is sustained by the wooden furniture and toys they make and sell to the outside world (turnover £17m).

The Bruderhof is more secluded than secretive. Anyone is free to join, provided they’ve experienced “the calling”, and anyone is free to leave if they decide the life is not for them.

Like the Amish, they allow their young people to sample the outside world before committing fully to the life at 21. The film devotes some time to 18-year-old Hannah, who gets to spend a year living and working in London to see if she prefers it to life in the Bruderhof.

It’s not a complete break, though; she’s billeted with a Bruderhof family in Peckham in a house owned by the community.

It’s a short documentary, running just 40 minutes. Alas, it’s also short on rigour and bite. There’s a lot here that’s allowed to slip by, mentioned but barely challenged, such as the fact that it’s the men who make the rules in the Bruderhof.

They dress the way most blokes dress, in shirts, T-shirts and jeans. The women, however, must obey a strict dress code of loose blouses, long skirts and head scarves. No make-up, naturally. They look, deliberately, like 19th-century peasants.

The women do all the washing, cooking and looking after the children. However hard you spin it, this is gender segregation; it’s an old-fashioned patriarchy.

“To us, it’s not a big deal,” says Bernard, who’s mild-mannered, yet at the same time, vaguely intimidating. “The community is not a democracy and we wouldn’t want that. It would just waste time.”

Bernard uses “us” and “we” a lot, even though he’s mostly the only one doing the talking. Hannah aside, the women barely get a look-in.

As well as possessions, something else is forbidden in the Bruderhof: same sex relationships. The documentary alludes to this, but doesn’t press it.

What happens to gay or lesbian members of the community? There must be some. Are they shunned? Excommunicated? Sent somewhere to be “cured”?

We never learn, because the question is never asked. Halfway through, I found myself wishing Louis Theroux would suddenly appear and yank a few chains.

2 stars

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