CBC’s new crime drama, Pure, which premiered on Jan. 9, 2017, has generated a lot of controversy in the Canadian Mennonite community, and for good reason.
The six-part TV serial concerns a “colony” of Old Order/Low German Mennonites in southern Ontario—no such ethnic group exists, let alone a colony—and its connection with a Mexican Mennonite drug-smuggling operation. Despite the extensive research that must have gone into the making of the show, the list of historical inaccuracies could fill this review. To learn more about these, I recommend online articles written by Mennonite historians Sam Steiner and Royden Loewen (on the Mennonite Studies Facebook page).
My first priority in this review will be to analyze Pure on its own merits as a TV show before reflecting briefly on why—and why not—its misrepresentation of Mennonites is an important consideration.
The first episode of Pure begins with the execution of a Mexican Mennonite family that had sought refuge from the Mexican Mennonite mob led by Eli Voss (played by Peter Outerbridge) in Ontario. A boy escapes and is adopted by a local colony, which is led by Noah Funk, the new pastor (Ryan Robbins). But the colony’s Epp family—good thing they weren’t Thiessens—is working with Voss, and threaten Noah’s family if he doesn’t deliver the boy to them. In the end, Noah is forced to work for Voss himself, which, from Noah’s view, is an opportunity to be an informant and expose the evil in the Mennonite world. Meanwhile, Detective Bronco Novak (A.J. Buckley) is hot on the trail of all these Mennonite criminals, with the help—over the phone—of a detective in Texas (Rosie Perez).
Pure’s production values are very high for a Canadian TV show. Indeed, the excellent cinematography that showcases the beauty of rural Nova Scotia, which stands in for rural Ontario, has been the highlight of the show. The show has also attracted some of the finest Canadian actors, like Outerbridge, who do a more-than-adequate job, and Perez is a nice addition.
And while the research for Pure was clearly sloppy, the show does make an effort to reflect languages, customs and names used by Mennonites, and to say positive things about Mennonites. I was particularly impressed by the restraint in the show’s use of violence. For a crime drama, the violence here is very tame—at least so far. It also features some strong writing and good dialogue.
However, the writing is the show’s most dubious quality. The first two episodes are neither very credible nor very compelling in their depiction of the male leads (Funk, Epp and Voss), the crimes committed and the investigation of those crimes. The only parts of the show that generated a real spark of interest for me were the family dynamics, especially in the story of Noah’s daughter Tina (Jessica Clement), and her friendship with Novak’s son Ben (Aaron Hale). It is doubtful whether these dynamics will sustain my interest in the long term.
What makes Pure’s misrepresentation of Mennonites so problematic is that it feels exploitative, as if CBC is intentionally using the distinctiveness of Old Order Mennonites to attract an audience. Given that CBC is a public broadcaster, with a mandate to inform and reflect regional and cultural diversity, its reinforcement of misinformed stereotypes about Mennonites is inexcusable.
A key example is Pure’s use of the word “Mennonites” to refer exclusively to Old Order Mennonites who use horses and buggies or paint their bumpers black, or to Low German Mexican Mennonites. Faith is shown as central to the Mennonites, but no distinction is made between Mennonite faith and ethnicity, ignoring the countless number of Mennonites who do not share a Low German ethnicity.
As a Mennonite with Low German roots, I was distracted by the poor accents and the poor use of Low German in Pure, and I was disappointed with CBC for the countless inaccuracies about Mennonite life and for its desire to exploit the Mexican Mennonite drug story.
At the same time, I would caution restraint in our defence of how Mennonites are depicted in Pure. TV shows and films routinely exploit and misrepresent ethnic and religious groups; HBO’s depiction of Mormons in its acclaimed series, Big Love, is an example.
And we know that Mennonites of all kinds, even the most faithful, have been guilty of a variety of sins. Instead of defending ourselves, let’s use the popularity of Pure as a discussion-starter that allows us to share our story with others, and to reflect with them on the many ways mass entertainment has misrepresented—and continues to misrepresent—ethnic groups during the past century.