'American Experience' explores the closed culture of the Amish

"American Experience" executive producer Mark Samels has wanted to make a film about the Amish for several years now, but he knew that it would be one of the hardest things he ever did. And he was right.

Luckily, "The Amish," a new episode premiering Tuesday, Feb. 28, on PBS (check local listings), also is one of the best episodes in this celebrated series, an absorbing and unprecedented look at a religious community whose members avoid being filmed or photographed. Not ideal, in other words, for a TV show.

"It wasn't until I talked to a group of scholars, including the dean of Amish scholars, Donald Kraybill, that I got the feeling if we built up trust and respected the Amish's wishes not to put themselves in jeopardy with their own community by not putting themselves too forward as individuals, that the Amish actually were interested in having themselves explained by themselves," says Samels, whose wife's family comes from a related Anabaptist group in Pennsylvania. "They really never had been a part of anything done on the Amish. (Previous shows) had been either fallen-away Amish or about some Amish youth experimenting with drugs and sex before they commit to a baptism. There was a wide-open terrain for something in-depth and genuine about the Amish. So we decided to risk it."

The production team spent six months convincing the community that the series was not going to do a "drive-by" piece on their faith before it was able to persuade some members to speak, only on audio, of their lives as Amish. As filming went on, Samels adds, the team had to deal with constantly shifting lines between what was acceptable and what was not.

"It was all situational," he says. "If someone could judge that an individual Amish person put his pride before himself, then he could be censured and admonished. But where does that line lie?"

Even so, "The Amish" is an absolutely stunning achievement.