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“Witness” by Peter Weir Essay

In his film witness peter weir criticizes aspects of modern society by contrasting it to the world of the Amish.

Discuss the statement with close reference to the film

The film Witness, directed by Peter Weir portrays the concept of cultural differences between the Amish and the outside world. Critical aspects of modern society (American society) are shown in various film techniques. Weir demonstrates aspects of the close study of text by using symbols, characterization, setting and diegetic and non-diegetic sounds to convey the contrast in lifestyles. He uses themes and film techniques to further emphasize the plot in the film. The dramatic thriller exposes the characters to reveal the interlect of the Amish community compared to American society, the aspects of the film is based on detective and love story themes. The main characters are Samuel; a young boy who knows too much, John Book the “good guy” American detective/cop, Rachel being Samuels caring single mother raising him in an Amish community and Rachel’s strict father Eli who is concerned about the dangers of his family’s wellbeing as a cause of the outside world getting in the way of there lifestyle.

Peter Weir’s film Witness explores the contrast between the two worlds by contrasting the Amish culture with a modern Westernized society of America. Weir presents many themes and issues in his film. Through his use of film techniques like long shots and close-ups make the film more enjoyable. These themes include clash of two cultures/different worlds, Peace and violence, innocence and corruption. These are presented effectively with a variety of film techniques, editing, setting, dialogue and music/sound. The two elements of the plot, the love story, and the crime story, make up the genre. Firstly, cultural clash is achieved through the contrast of setting.

The clash between the two cultures is a major issue in the film and it is later resolved. The shot of the countryside, showing the Amish farmhouses and barns shows a peaceful community. This contrasts with the busy American city, with shops, modern style buildings and cars suggesting a highly industrialized society. Contrasting of the two worlds is again achieved by comparing the community in the Amish world with the individualism in the modern world. This is shown through camera techniques and costumes.

In the opening scene, a long shot shows a group of Amish people walking together. The group, dressed in similar black costumes, supports the idea of a unified community. Additionally, the shot of the men raising the barn, gives an impression of teamwork in the Amish community. This contrasts with the high level angle shot of people walking around independently in the train station, increase the individualism of the modern world. The two worlds come together when Book drives Rachel to her father in law’s house, Eli, which is shown through the visual contrasts and comparisons Weir uses throughout the film. For example many of the images use the lack of harmony, which is the placement of things side by side that aren’t usually seen together – this shows the two worlds colliding, the clash of cultures.

The opening of the film is executed to show the Amish community’s way of living it draws the audience into the setting and main characters, we know the film is going to be about community. Peter weir the director establishes the rural location of the Amish town by the use of natural light, creating an outdoor setting. The camera angles vary throughout the first few scenes of the film with long shots to display the Amish rising out of the earth. The slow editing of the long shot accentuates the close-ups of the main characters Rachel and Samuel. Low key lighting is revealed indoors showing realism of the Amish ways as they have no power, the lighting creates warmth by nature and subdues the setting intriguing the audience. The wind is filmed in a long shot and the spacious land creates a connection between the Amish and the land.

The eerie music that is played at the beginning of the film sets the mood to be olden day, it is unusual but intriguing. The aspects of the Amish ways of life is shown with the costumes that the characters are wearing all grouped around in the funeral scene of Rachel’s husband Jacob passing away. They all look very formal and covered up wearing long clothes, the men wear suits and lady’s long dresses. It is very traditional in the 18th century and the Amish ways are seen to be of simplicity and juxtaposes to the modern world that we live in today.

The film was set in 1984 Weir depicts violence in the film, as we would expect, when we see the murder of the undercover detective near the start, when we see Book looking for the murderers, when the killer tries to murder him the graphic violence is displayed as we share the shock of this by viewing the murder through Samuel’s fearful eyes. Also in the incident when Ford beats up the hooligans who are taunting the Amish and in the shoot-out at the end. However, violence does not dominate the film: the lengthy central section shows the development of the relationship between Rachel and Book and his insights into the way of life of the Amish. The cascading use of lighting and sound in the “barn dancing scene” is sued to symbolize the romantic tension between book and Rachel.

Through angling the camera of the car and upper mid shots of both book and Rachel when they are inside the car in a two- shot. Weir manifest’s the notion of book’s growing fondness towards Rachel and the use of soft and ever- present sounds is utilized to demonstrate the innocence of the characters emotions. The film score also is untypical of the genre, since it tends to rely on understatement. Maurice Jarre, who composed the music, used synthesized music principally to help create a feeling of harmony, and thus the music is predominantly light in texture. Even in the murder scene near the start the music mimics the fast heartbeat of the boy, so that we empathise with his fear rather than experience a vicarious excitement at the violence of the action.

The two worlds being the Amish and American are brought into conflict by the fact that the young Amish boy witnessed the murder, and thus Harrison Ford has to protect him and also shelter among the Amish to hide from those who pursue him. As he recovers we see his love for Rachel develop, and hers for him. The crucial moment arrives when we see Ford watching her having a bath. The bathing scene is a scene of intense romantic tension, temptation and passion. Lighting, sound and symbolism are of particular importance in creating as sustaining the theme of romantic tension between book and Rachel.

Book stares at Rachel, and she turns round to face him as he stands in the doorway which is an intitation for their sexual orientation- an “evil” act in the eyes of the Amish law. Rachel’s nakedness is symbolic of the purity of the Amish world. Book cannot look upon her as his stare corrupts the innocence of her being and her world. It is evident that she wants him to make love to her, and he wants to, yet he does not. On the following day he tells her that had he done so either he would have had to marry her and stay with her, or she would have had to go with him to the city. Thus their ways of life are clearly shown to be incompatible, and Peter Weir avoids the easy romantic solution in the film.

Policemen in the film are not represented in a very favorable light. Ford himself, though on the side of justice, has to be just as ruthless as the criminals. The corrupting influence of the city affects the police also. In Amish society Women are portrayed in a rather stereotypical fashion: they are submissive to men, they are there to be looked at, they are strong in their sense of moral duty. We see this clearly in the barn building, where the women are there to provide support for the men who are doing the actual physical labor.

The contrasting of the two worlds being the American society and the Amish community are interpreted to eductate the audience on the differences this is clearly shown through the characters life’s and drama’s that happen.

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