Inside the Bruderhof review – is this a religious stirring I feel?

This heaven-on-earthly documentary about the radical Christian sect, where everything is shared and faith is the only currency, gave pause for thought

I had always believed that if I were ever visited by religious feeling, it would be the blood-and-thunder Catholicism of my forebears. Folk memory or epigenetics would stir, and there I would be – calling fire down from heaven, searching for stigmatists and generally making a nuisance of myself, especially to Protestants. As I have grown older, I have realised this is unlikely for many reasons. First of all, God is dead – this was surely confirmed on Wednesday when Boris Johnson moved into 10 Downing Street. Second, my forebears must have been a much more extrovert lot than I am. I temperamentally incline to something quieter; less show, more focus. Something to which I can, since this documentary, call “more Bruderhoffy”.

The Bruderhof is a radical Christian movement, founded 100 years ago, that comprises 3,000 members living in 23 settlements around the world. Inside the Bruderhof (BBC One) followed the lives of some of those ensconced in Darvell, their Sussex enclave. Bernard Hibbs, who has lived there for 30 years, explains that their purpose “is to follow Jesus as closely as possible, especially the Sermon on the Mount, and not wait for some future glorious kingdom to come”. To this heaven-on-earthly end, the Bruderhof live as collectively and non-hierarchically as possible. Possessions are shared, clothes (many made on site) are issued from a central repository, food also comes from a central store and is cooked and eaten communally. There’s a farm, a school, a laundry and no electricity, smartphones or other technology.

Although the enterprise is funded by a multi-million pound business selling Bruderhof-made children’s toys and furniture, the movement itself does not use money. Their currency is shared faith.

One of those followed was Hannah, 18-year-old daughter of Ruthie and Mark and a third-generation Bruderhoffian, who was preparing to embark on their version of the Amish rumspringa – living for a year in the outside world so she can make an informed decision about committing to the sect for life. She will live with a Bruderhof foster family in – I suppose it shouldn’t sound unlikely, but it does – Peckham, south London. Mark, an American, did his God-gap year in South Carolina – “Tough times ended up being good times. And I learned to pray real fast!” He hopes Hannah will learn that people lead different lives “and that it doesn’t matter. God works in many colours.”

Hannah’s mother is more conflicted. “I hope you learn to depend completely on God,” she tells her daughter. It’s the kind of line that could raise secular hackles, but such was the considered pace and mood of the film that instead you found yourself wondering if the sentiment wasn’t one we all share: listen to your conscience; don’t give in to outside pressures; above all, be steady.

Elsewhere, the inquisitive rather than inquisitorial approach led to some aspects of the group’s ideology being undutifully glossed over. What are these “restrictions on same-sex relationships” mentioned only in voiceover? We can imagine, of course, but I would like to know. I would also like to know what happens to those who want to follow Christ in the Bruderhoffian way but the Bruderhof don’t approve of who they love.

Less controversial problematic areas were better confronted, such as the overtly old-fashioned dress for the women (a result of the greater changes there have been in women’s clothing than men’s, says Hibbs, rather than any deliberate emphasis on female modesty) and the traditional split along gender lines in work and domestic duties. Women in the kitchen and laundry, men in the factory and farms is still how God wants it, apparently.

There was time and space to consider the ramifications of living in this semi-communal, unacquisitive, self-abnegating way. To ponder the wisdom, or otherwise, of the claim of one of Hannah’s companions in Peckham that it is hard to form genuine relationships in a world fixated on lifestyle and appearance or that women don’t realise how enslaved they are by consumerism. To look at Hardy’s contentment, having sacrificed his worldly ambitions (his term) to return to the community in which he grew up and contribute to the greater good (“From a selfish point of view I would be happier elsewhere [but without] the peace which I found in this place”), and wonder. Just wonder.

Good documentaries, like good Christians, will make you do that.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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