Jan 16, 2017

D'Amato: Nothing pure in CBC's Mennonite series

 Ryan Robbins stars in CBC's "Pure" about drug dealing in the Canadian Mennonite community.
Waterloo Region Record
By Luisa D'Amato
January 12, 2017 

"Pure," the new CBC Television drama about drug-smuggling Mennonites that premièred this week, is a little bit like the cocaine that is at the centre of the story: It's seductively thrilling, and it's bad for you.

Toronto-based critics have raved about the gorgeous cinematography and fine acting. All true.

But the show — which is seen as a Mennonite version of the American hit series "Breaking Bad" — has also profoundly upset people who actually know something about this small, distinctive and vulnerable subculture.

They say the CBC was grossly inaccurate in its portrayal, and has engaged in hurtful stereotyping.

"There's a lot of misrepresentation," said Marlene Epp, who teaches Mennonite history and is also dean at Conrad Grebel University College at University of Waterloo.

"The Old Order Mennonites, for all their faults and impurities, they're law-abiding. They're good people. They're a good example of living on the land, and living simply, and being peaceful.

"I fear that community will really get maligned and tainted because of this portrayal."

The show's premise offers a double-entendre on its title. The cocaine is pure, and in the fantasies of outsiders, so is the secluded rural community of Mennonites in which it plays out.

The story shows a group of "Mexican" or "Old Colony" Mennonites running drugs from Mexico to Canada.

They're a separate group from the Mennonites who came to settle in Waterloo Region from Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. Some descendants of those early pioneers kept a simple lifestyle, using horses and buggies instead of cars. They're called "Old Order" and live in the country around Kitchener-Waterloo.

But the show acts like a giant blender, whirling them all together along with several other Anabaptist subgroups, and throwing in a bunch of bizarre details on top, like the crucifix mounted above a door in one scene, which in real life never would have been there.

"The show seems sloppily researched and caricatures what it purports to be a real community," wrote Royden Loewen, chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

"It gets many things wrong: the accent, the names, the dresses, the theology, the very buggy used, the church architecture, the very notion of the existence of a 'colony.'"

"The inconsistencies are bewildering," says local blogger S.L. Klassen in her post "Oh, what fresh hell is this?" at www.slklassen.com.

"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."

Not to mention the horrifying violence, casually employed as it often is in crime dramas, and profound abhorrence of which unites Mennonites of all stripes.

Why does this matter? It's just a show, after all. Drama doesn't resemble real life, as we all know. And if this was Hollywood, or even a privately owned TV network, you could shrug and not watch it.

But this is CBC, which gets $1.2 billion a year in public funds, so the rules are and should be different.

In fact, CBC has a mandate to "inform, enlighten and entertain; to contribute to the development of a shared national consciousness and identity; (and) to reflect the regional and cultural diversity of Canada."

"Pure" certainly entertains, but it does the opposite of informing, enlightening, and reflecting regional and cultural diversity.

In part of the show, the police chief tells off an officer who is investigating the case.

"They're Mennonites who live on farms, not Mennos in buggytown," she says. "Watch the tone."

CBC brass, are you listening?


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