WATERLOO – Gene Raffensperger stood next to the big yellow school bus in front of a country school and watched as Amish schoolchildren came out of the school. They were crying as their mothers embraced them, and then someone yelled “Run.”
“The children scattered like quail. They ran toward a cornfield, climbed over the barbed wire fences and kept running through the standing corn,” recalled Raffensperger in an interview with documentary filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle of Fourth Wall Films.
When local school officials decided to enforce compulsory public education laws, making the Amish children go to public schools in November 1965, a Des Moines Register photographer captured the image of children fleeing authorities. Raffensperger, who was the eastern Iowa reporter for the Des Moines Register, wrote about the inevitable culture clash which gained national attention and ultimately led to a public movement for private schooling.
A free sneak preview of “The Amish Incident,” the latest documentary by the Emmy-nominated filmmakers, will be shown at 7 p.m. Monday at the Starlight Cinema, 2401 Swan Lake Blvd., in Independence.
“We came across the Amish incident in production for ‘Country School: One-Room — One Nation’ and for a while, considered including the story in that film. We decided it really was something important that needed to have its own film treatment,” said filmmaker and producer Kelly Rundle.
He and his wife, Tammy, formerly of Waterloo, have produced 12 award-winning documentaries including “Villisca: Living with a Mystery,” “Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg,” and four Emmy-nominated films, including “Good Earth: Awakening the Silent City.”
It’s an early cut of the film. “We want to get the horse out of the barn and see if she runs,” Rundle said. “We want to see how the film plays for an audience, and it’s very helpful for us to get feedback. We hope it brings out people who remember the event, or who were there.”
The special screening of the 25-minute documentary will include a question-and-answer session moderated by Rundle. The program is sponsored by Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area.
You can view a teaser for the film at https://vimeo.com/298773881
In 2009, the Rundles conducted extensive interviews with people who were directly involved in the Amish story and the footage sat on a shelf until about a year ago. New research includes newly discovered archival materials, including a clipping from the Courier’s coverage in 1965 and period photographs.
Earlier this year, Fourth Wall Films was awarded a Silos & Smokestacks grant to fund additional production work which included an interview with former school superintendent Art Sensor.
In many respects, the story is told through the eyes of journalist Raffensperger, Rundle said, and builds on the famous photograph of children running shot by Register photographer Tom DeFeo.
“Originally I thought it was a story about the Amish, but instead it’s a story about a clash of cultures and how that clash was reported in the news media. Seeing the photo of officials chasing peaceful Amish children into a cornfield shifted public sentiment to the Amish side.”
As a newspaper reporter, Raffensperger felt from the beginning the Amish incident was one of the most important stories he would cover. His initial story was published in 1962, inspired by a three-paragraph story he spotted in the Courier.
“I go to the Amish community to talk to an Amish patriarch. We’re talking in a room with no lights. There’s no water. There are lanterns around. They didn’t have telephones. And he’s talking about the school thing,” Raffensperger told the interviewers. “I never walked into one just like that, and I’m saying to myself, ‘My God, this is the jet age colliding with horse and buggy.”
Subsequent stories by Raffensperger followed, and the school incident took place three years later. The retired journalist now lives in Cedar Falls.
“His articles really painted a picture for readers about who the Plain people were and what was happening to them,” Rundle explained.
Fiscal sponsor is The Moline Foundation. Filming took place in Fayette, Buchanan and Polk counties.
Editor’s note: Gene Raffensperger is the father of The Courier’s editor, Nancy Raffensperger Newhoff.