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Essay : Witness (Film by Peter Weir) Essay

The film, Witness, deals with characters in conflict with the world around them. Discuss the methods Weir uses to convey this idea of conflict.

In Peter Weir’s film, Witness, several characters come into conflict with their environment. This is evident through the use of various techniques such as symbol, camera angle, and imagery. Samuel’s protective life as a child in the Amish community is corrupted when he comes into contact with crime and the city and experiences a loss of innocence. By contrast, John Book faces many obstacles when he leaves his life in the city for that of the sheltered life of the Amish and suffers turmoil when he falls in love with Rachel, who comes from a world in which he cannot belong. Similarly, the corrupt policemen, McFee, Schaeffer and Fergie find obstacles when they enter the world of the Amish, looking for Book.

When Samuel is brought into Philadelphia it quickly becomes obvious that he is in conflict with the environment around him and we witness his loss of innocence at the railway station. Weir uses sound and camera angle as a method of showing Samuel’s confusion. From low angle shots, viewers can identify with Samuel’s perspective and can appreciate his confusion, noting that all the child can see is people from their midriff down, walking past in all directions. Weir also portrays Samuel’s confusion by having many people talking at once, thus creating contrast between the buzz of a city and the peacefulness of his home. The director uses cinematography well in this scene. Samuel’s conflict is evident when he is confronted with a huge statue. The camera slowly tilts upwards from a low angle until he can see right to the top; he is clearly not used to seeing something of this size. Aside from creating a vulnerability in Samuel, this contrast in size reveals his unfamiliarity with his surroundings, evident by the expression of awe on his face of wide-eyed innocence.

The next shot is a bird’s-eye view from the top of the statue, it shows Samuel, who is dressed differently to the rest of the crowd, standing still, in sharp contrast to the constantly moving bustling city crowd. The look on Samuel’s face when he thinks he sees one of his own people is that of excitement and comfort and his disappointment is evident when, after running up to this man, he discovers that he is not an Amish, but an Orthodox Jew. His mother is aware of the dangers of this strange world and is keeping her eye on Samuel until he wants to visit the toilet. When Samuel walks into the men’s toilets, the man washing his hands (who is later murdered in front of Samuel) turns around and gives the boy a friendly smile. He then walks into a cubicle. As this happens two men walk into the bathroom, McFee and Fergie.

Mcfee nods to his partner then puts a bag over the head of the man washing his hands. The next few shots splice between Samuel’s eye peering out of the cubical in utter horror and the murderers slashing this man’s throat. This intricate camera work stresses the fact that Samuel is watching and his shock reinforces the clash in the two cultures–the violent city versus the pacifist ways of his Amish community. It is in this scene that Samuel’s life is changed forever, as he witnesses this man’s bloodthirsty murder. Viewers no longer witness an innocent child, but a boy using all his wit in his fight to survive.

The scene where Rachel returns the hidden gun to Book, presents the clash of these two cultures, through the use of images and film techniques. We first witness Rachel with her back to the camera, at medium range, washing dishes–a true domestic scene. She turns as John Book enters and laughs. Viewers are then shown just how out-of-place Book is in her community, evident when we see him in her dead husband’s Amish clothes that are far too small for him (a symbol that he cannot fit into Rachel’s world, and in particular, as her husband). The camera reveals his embarrassment as it tilts to his bare ankles and then we see and hear Rachel laughing, but trying not to in empathy for Book. When Book asks for his gun, the laughter on her face vanishes..

The composition of this frame shows John looking ridiculous in clothes that are far too small for him, in contrast to the juxtaposition of Rachel looking very comfortable and laughing at how he looks. This is split right down the middle by a doorframe, which also show John’s conflict with the Amish community. Next John asks for his gun because he needs it to go to the town. Her facial statement goes absolutely dead serious and she gets it from the cupboard. She picks up the gun by the handle with her index finger and thumb with the rest of the gun dangling below.

Once she handed the gun to him, he asks for the bullets that Rachel has forgotten, which she gets out of the flower jar that she has kept them in. Her change in facial statement shows her conflict to guns and the use of guns. Her intriguing way of holding the gun displays that she thinks of them as dirty and forgetting the bullets shows her lack of knowledge about guns. Altogether this is a very uncomfortable scene toped off by leaving the bullets in the flower, flower being a symbol of life and bullets being a symbol of death.

When McFee comes to get John it is very clear that he is in contrast with his surroundings through script, sound effects, character costume and cinematography. Narcotics agent McFee tries to cut off John Book by going around the back of the barn and as he does this, he steps right into a pile of dung. His curses are in sharp contrast to the Pacifist ways of the Amish. McFee is wearing a very smart suit, carefully picked to contrast to the Amish’s simple clothes. This difference is exaggerated when he steps in the dung showing just how out of place he is.


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