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Witness: Amish and Modern American Society

Student No. 22766066 Year 12 HSC English, Close study of Text- Witness, Peter Weir Australian director Peter Weir’s film ‘Witness’ is set in 1985 and depicts a clash between modern American society and an idyllic Amish community. Maeri Saeli describes it as “the two worlds meet, but never merge”. Weir has a number of main ideas including violence, passivism and direct action, relationships and clashing cultures. Weir ensures that his ideas impact on the audience and their understanding through an interaction of ideas, characters and techniques.

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Weir highlights stark differences in cultural values and ideals through differing perspectives on violence. The main character of the modern American society, John Book is originally situated in a society that uses violence to achieve whatever is necessary. Weir depicts the seedy and corrupted nature of this violent society visually through the repetition of dark frames shot in night, only aided by harsh artificial light.

The unpleasantness of life in a violent society is further evident through the use of crowded frames in an attempt to increase the audience’s understanding of the cramped modern American lifestyle. These ideas culminate in the scene of the Happy Valley nightclub. There is an intense juxtaposition between Book, who grabs a suspect and slams his face into a car window depicting typical behaviour of the brutal city, and the shocked faces of Samuel and Rachel, who represent purity and innocence.

On a symbolic note, it is important that the light coloured car that Samuel and Rachel wait in belongs to Book, suggesting that although Book depends heavily on violence he has a heart and sound morals and is a good man. This becomes clearer as the film continues and the audience understanding increases. Another negative aspect of the violent society that Weir illustrates is that trust has been lost. Schaeffer, who Book believes is a ‘friend’ and loyal family man, has been corrupted by the lure of a quick dollar and greed. Five thousand dollars a punt” Book explains. Book trusts Schaeffer with his knowledge of who the murderer is, however we soon find out that Schaeffer has a major involvement in the murder. When Book states it’s only him and Schaeffer who know, Schaeffer says “keep it that way” so he can protect himself. These examples show that this modern American society is one where you cannot ‘judge a book by its cover’ and it allows the audience to observe the individualistic and greedy views of the modern American society. However, the film also ortrays a society which differs greatly from the violent American society through the peaceful, harmonic nature of the Amish, who seem to have a connection with their land and they possess much morality. They are a passive society, which means that they do not believe in resorting to violence under any circumstances. As Eli states “we believe it wrong to take a life”. Their society is represented by Weir’s use of natural lighting which is softer, pastel colour schemes, and long shots of the sky, barns and open fields.

These shots, which will place the audience at ease, are particularly shown in the opening scenes, and they are shown as a community whereas those in the modern American society are represented as individualistic. Although Peter Weir strongly depicts the negative influence of violence on American society, he wishes to depict to the audience that all hope is not lost and change is possible, which will ultimately increase their understanding of characters. Throughout the film, Book develops as a character and learns that violence does not necessarily have to be resorted to under every circumstance.

This is specifically shown in the ‘showdown’ scene, when Book is able to disarm Schaeffer by persuasion rather than by violent means, and the Amish community all gather around to bear witness and thus act as an aid in persuading Schaeffer to give in. Witnessing is a reoccurring motif throughout the film and it is reinforced and repeated through the title, as well as the audience who witness the narrative of the film unfold. The symbolism of the ‘gun’ represents the evil and corruption of humans; its creation was by humans and it is now used to kill other humans.

This is shown through the corruption of Samuel against the Amish views, as he witnesses the murder, becomes curious of the gun and his corruption is shown ultimately when he states “I would only kill a bad man”. Peter Weir involves the audience in the film as he indirectly forces them to question their understanding of morality in the context of “witness”: who is to decide when a man is bad? This involves the audience as they are able to make their own opinion on the easy corruption of such an innocent and young character.

Eli, Samuel’s grandfather is represented as an important mentor and role model for Samuel when he sits down to confront Samuel about the gun, so rather than avoiding the issue of violence and danger that has entered Samuel’s eyes he takes it as an opportunity to educate. The clash of cultures, and the understanding that they can never merge, comes through Book and Rachel’s relationship. The ‘Barn Dancing Scene’ clearly represents how their love is forbidden in the Amish community and that their cultural differences could never let them be together, even though they are desperately in love.

In this scene, Peter Weir employs the use of appropriate music to convey a message to the audience. The lyrics of the music, ‘What a wonderful world it would be… ’ are played through Book’s car stereo as they dance under the headlights of the car that he has been repairing in the barn – thus there is a juxtaposition here and ‘clash’ of the two worlds which is evident as the car does not look right in the setting of a barn. The lyrics suggest that although their relationship could be wonderful, the WOULD shows that it would never happen under the circumstances.

The quick cut editing and close-ups as they dance show their affection for each other, and the fun that they have in each other’s company, however this is interrupted by a shocked and angry Eli who represents the views of the Amish community and this strengthens the idea of forbidden love. The idea that the two cultures could never successfully cooperate with each other in the long term, and the idea that the Amish society are conformists and value community, and the modern American society functions under individuality and personal gain, is shown in a scene set in a nearby town of the Amish.

When young American ‘rednecks’ taunt with insults “come on goldie locks, get down and fight” and wipe ice-cream across Daniel’s face, Book gets increasingly angry. However, Eli confirms to Book, “It is not our way,” whilst Book replies, “But it is my way. ” The emphasis on OUR and MY represents the two different cultural ideals as well as reinforcing the different views on violence in the societies.

Book, who has been trained as a policeman, finds this belief in himself and his justification of violence very hard to deny, thus showing how he could not permanently give up his American lifestyle in order to live with the Amish, to be with Rachel. Although the Amish believe in pacifism, without Book’s help, Samuel would have most probably been murdered by Schaeffer and McFee. This would have caused much greater devastation to the Amish community. Therefore the audience, and the Amish community, are thankful for Book’s contribution in the community.

This acceptance of Book is shown in the ‘send-off’ scenes where Eli says “Be careful among them English” to Book, showing that Book is now recognised as a good, valued man despite their differences and that Eli knows that Book is not the stereotypical ‘Englishman’ that Eli fears but that he is a much deeper and kinder person than expected. Peter Weir’s film Witness demonstrates effective filmmaking which employs techniques, including visual, auditory and dialogue, to ensure increased understanding and appreciation of the film’s central messages.

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