Witness: Amish and Weir

Through the medium of film, composers send messages to their audience that involve diverse aspects of human lives and related values. The film Witness by Peter Weir features components of the crime, romance and western genres and examines the co-existence of diverse cultures in 1984 Pennsylvania. The issues of good versus evil, cultural identity and forbidden love are also emphasized in the film. Using film techniques of mise en scene, lighting as well as dialogue and music, it helps construct a film that… (Incorporate question)

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Weirs film looks into the Amish culture as well as mainstream American society and analyses the differences between them. The opening montage of the serene landscape, combined with the establishing shot of the Amish people walking through the tall grass positions the audience to understand the peace and tranquility that this community reflects. The people in anachronistic costumes, walking through the homestead indicates the peaceful nature of the Amish.

Weir tries to show that it may not be the Amish whose lives are distorted or wrong as mainstream society seems to think. He introduces the city through the modern vehicles, the dirt and grime of the railway station and the irony of the “Happy Valley Bar “ where Weir has low key lighting and twisted sounds. It all incorporates the idea that city life is corrupt and violent. By interposing these two landscapes Weir adds to the contrast of the two cultures leading the audience to consider which of the two cultures might be the more “vagrant”.

By the end of the film the audience is lead to the result that each culture has its own individual identity, which has its own values, and through these values they may be able to live their individual lives without the concern of being different. The murder scene provides the key plot point for the entire film. Ironically, the lawmakers are the ones who commit murder. Audiences are made to reflect on many issues here- the people we put our trust in are the ones who misuse their power and leave all of us feeling as vulnerable as the 8 year old Samuel who witnesses a very gruesome killing.

The murder symbolises the killing of innocence not only of Samuel but members of the community. In the murder scene when McFee is washing his hands, it symbolises that he is an upholder of the law yet he can just wash this murder right off his hands. Both McFee and Shaffer believe they are “right about everything” and they are “the only ones who can do anything” This adds to the notion that Weir points out, where the modern society values are corrupt and twisted. The title of the film Witness is used as a main idea of the film. Weir uses the title as a motif itself.

He continues to blur the boundaries between what is real and what is perceived. He does so with the dramatic murder scene which Samuel becomes “a material witness to a homicide” and which will change his life. The title of the film therefore comes to refer not only to what an innocent boy has seen but also to Book who becomes representative of his world, which is not as noble as it may sound. Both become witnesses to their respective worlds. Weir uses the point of view shot, which allows the audience to perceive what Samuel and Book ‘witness’, and in turn are able to gain a greater appreciation of cultural diversity.

Weir introduces an element of romance when John Book and Rachel fall into a state of forbidden love. He positions the viewers into expecting a classic love story. The director uses mise en scene elements such as well-edited close-ups and emotional eye contact when John and Rachel waltz to a Sam Cooke tune in the barn. This physically emphasises their mutual attraction with each other. The consequence of Rachel being ‘shunned’ stresses the risks of breaking the rules of their respective worlds. However their relationship also serves to highlight the cultural divide that exists between them.

Weir uses the mise en scene elements such as framing as a motif. In this case he uses window frames with Samuel and Rachel on one side watching Book arrest the villains on the other side. Raising boundaries that are essentially impassable and diametrically opposed worlds cannot merge. Book leaves as he goes “back to his world, where he belongs” while the audience is disappointed that the romance doesn’t end in typical Hollywood style, their separation endorses their strengths of character and the fact that we must learn to co-exist with other communities.

By contrasting the two worlds mailnly in visual terms, Weir is able to create a text leaving audiences to reflect on contemporary society as being a world with distorted values where crime and violence seem to override the good, but on the other hand are valued as positive things. Effective cinematography, stereotypical characters, an unusual plot in an equally unusual setting, allow the responder to gain a better understanding of… (incorporate question)

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