'American Colony' peers inside religious commune
LOS ANGELES—Bertha Hofer deserves to be one of the summer's biggest, if unlikeliest, TV stars.
In the narrowest sense, she's yet another working mom opening up her life to the camera. But Hofer is part of an unusual and intriguing world, a small Montana religious commune depicted in National Geographic Channel's "American Colony: Meet the Hutterites."
Hofer, 52, a widowed mother of three balancing her religion's strict tenets with her children's hopes for the future, is a focus of the series. Her unvarnished and soulful face, the kind that cannot hide its heart, recalls the careworn migrant mother in Dorothea Lange's classic 1930s Depression-era portrait.
"Atlanta `Housewives' they're not," David Lyle, the channel's CEO, said of Hofer and the other Hutterites depicted in the 10-part series airing 10 p.m. EDT Tuesdays. "When you look at Bertha, she's a very good, committed member of this community, and she's struggling to be one of the best parents I've seen on TV."
A documentary with a restrained reality series flavor, "American Colony" follows the daily life of the rural community that is both part of and carefully separated from typical modern life.
The King colony is one of the German-speaking Hutterite communes scattered across the U.S. and, in the greatest numbers, in Canada. They are Protestants who are similar to the Amish and Mennonites and live a life centered on their religion. But Hutterites are communal and have no personal property, based in part on a Bible passage that reads, "All the believers were together and had everything in common."
They also make use of technology, some elements more eagerly than others. The Hutterite men who work as farmers and ranchers rely on tractors and trucks, but the commune's teenagers who have access to computer and cell phones are discouraged from using them.
Hutterites "engage with the outside world," said producer Jeff Collins. "That's what they struggle with the most: How much is too much, how much isn't enough? The young people say, `Our ancestors didn't have machinery for farming. Why can't I have an iPad?'"
The word "stuffy" doesn't come to mind when watching the series. Alcoholic beverages are a part of colony life and so is a fair amount of cursing, which stands in sharp contrast to the Hutterites' strict faith and modest dress, including a requirement that women keep their hair covered.
Colony members also have a lively sense of humor. The men rib each other about who works hardest; the teenage girls tease each other about prospective boyfriends.
That's true, at least, in the 59-member commune seen in "American Colony" and located more than 100 miles from Billings, Mont.
It's one of about 50 colonies in Montana averaging roughly 100 people each, according to a 2010 state report. Hutterites also live in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon.
Suffering from a long history of discrimination, Hutterites moved to the Montana and Dakota territories in the 1870s after being forced by persecution from Germany, eastern Europe and Russia. They moved into Canada after World War I when members were arrested for not enlisting in the military, returning to the U.S. after laws were passed to protect conscientious objectors.
Production company Collins Avenue -- making a segue from its other shows, including "Dance Moms" -- gained entrance to the King colony through a young filmmaker, Trever James, who had grown up nearby and whose family was close with its members. The decision to air the project on National Geographic also proved a selling point with the commune, said Collins.
A commune keepsake is a 1970 issue of National Geographic that featured a measured, insightful piece on the Hutterites by William Albert Allard, who followed up with subsequent pieces.
Collins said that he and the channel's Lyle agreed the series would avoid such reality TV production ploys as "feeding" lines to participants to heighten the drama.
"David and I said, `Let's not ruin anyone's life here. They're interesting enough," the producer said. He recalled filming as an ongoing "negotiation," with colony members querying the film crew on how and what they were filming, with the commune's church was completely off limits.
(How the colony and other Hutterites will respond to such TV exposure remains to be seen. A spokesman for King colony declined to comment on its participation in the series.)
Lyle said the program is true to the company's mission.
"What we wanted to look at, and it's in the tradition of National Geographic, the magazine and the channel, are the outliers among us ... groups that seem to be quite unusual and occupy an extraordinary world, but then you get inside that world and find that the people and challenges and emotions are relatable," Lyle said.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org.