How does the film ‘Witness’ show the clash between Amish and modern American culture

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The film Witness is about corruption in the police force, the merging and conflict of cultures and romance between two culturally different people. Witness contains many moral issues, which include, murder, cultural awareness, and religion. The Amish way of life is very simple; they wear simple clothes, use simple farming and building methods and they have no electricity. There is also an overwhelming sense of community. The contrast between this Amish culture and that of modern America is important to the film because it makes all the evil things the Americans do look so much worse when compared to the Amish.

It also shows that the two cultures are mutually exclusive. This film is targeted at everyone, as it was designed to entertain, but only the more able viewer will understand the symbolism, as it is quite hard to pick up. The symbolism, along with the music, lighting and camera shots, is there to stimulate certain effects such as suspense, tension and pride. If the viewer cannot understand the symbolism, a lot of the directors desired effects will not be felt. Both cultures have symbols, such as the modern American guns and the Amish hats and grain.

These greatly contribute to the viewers understanding of the cultural differences. An example of this juxtaposition can be seen when John walks up to a wooden shop in his Amish clothes, but then stands next to a coke machine, because this looks so odd, the viewer notices the culture difference. Another example of the symbols showing the culture clash is when one of the corrupt policemen shoots a hole in the hatch leading to the grain. The grain leaks out, symbolising the Amish culture pouring away.

The clash can also be seen when the American car breaks the wooden birdhouse and again when the gun is hidden in the flour and the car hidden in the barn. Also the Americans are shown to be taking life with ease and when Rachel is making preserves she is preserving life. The symbolism can also be seen on a much more literal level as well as the metaphoric. When John broke the bird house, he literally destroyed part of the Amish culture. The costume in ‘Witness’ plays a very important part in showing the clash between the cultures as it is very obvious to the viewer.

The Amish dress is very simple and plain, due to their religious beliefs, where as the modern American; brightly coloured and varied clothes are what we are used to seeing. When the Amish are in modern America they look out of place and the same with the police and tourists in the Amish town. This reinforces what we already know about the cultures as the Amish clothes reflect their lives, simple. The dress is particularly significant in the scene where John Book changes into Rachel’s dead husband’s clothes. They are too short for him and it gives the impression that he is falling short of the Amish standards.

The dress is also significant in the scene where Rachel takes off her hat. It is as if the hat symbolises the repression her culture puts on her and when she removes it, she is rebelling. It also makes her appear venerable. In the scene where the Amish are getting bullied by the Americans, there is a great significance in John’s hat being knocked off, as he reacted violently which is against the Amish principles. Hats also play an important part in the murder scene. Samuel is made to wear his hat to protect his innocence but ironically he ends up being witness to something far from innocent, a murder.

There are also sounds that are common to each culture and the viewer can link them to find a contrast. For example, in modern America, the sound of cars, sirens, telephones, typewriters and hand cuffs jangling are very common and contrast with the typical Amish sounds, such as birdsong, horses, footsteps and quiet. These sounds give the viewer a picture of a busling modern American life and a quiet, tranquil Amish life. This can be noticed in the scene where the corrupt police chief is on the phone to the sheriff. As the shot flicks from person to person, the sounds change dramatically.

The director used this to make the clash of sounds very obvious. Music is used in the film ‘Witness’ to convey the difference between the two cultures. In the modern American world it is used to convey suspense. This can be noticed in the murders scene where the music builds up tension to a climax, when the actual murder happens. The music plays a similar role in the scenes where Samuel sees the murder’s photograph, when John realises Samuel is in danger and again where John’s partner retrieves Samuels file from the police station. In all these scenes the music adds to the suspense.

The director uses the lack of music early in these scenes, so when the music starts it is more obvious that something is going to happen and the suspense effect is much more pronounced. This contrasts with the music in the Amish scenes, which is more uplifting. For example, when the barn is being built and when Samuel rings the bell and the Amish come to his aid. In both cases the music is happy, triumphant and uplifting. When John leaves the Amish and passes Daniel, the music helps portray the effect of John’s acceptance into the Amish culture; in all of these scenes the same theme is repeated.

The music playing when John and Rachel dance is very much part of John’s culture and as Rachel enjoys dancing to it. The director chose this song because it is as if the music is pulling Rachel away from her culture and into Johns. The song lyrics also express the sexual tension between John and Rachel. The lighting in the film ‘Witness’ helps the viewer distinguish between the two cultures and lets them see the clash more easily. In all the modern American scenes the lighting is very artificial, to create the effect of a lot of electrical lights, typical of modern America.

This is obvious in the office scenes and the fast food cafe. This contrasts with the dull and natural light in the Amish scenes. The director also lighting in symbolism, when it creates a halo effect around Rachel in the scene where she is caring for John and again when Rachel holds a lamp, appearing to be Florence Nightingale. Light is also used in pathetic fallacy, when the murder takes place and during John’s illness it is dark compared to the light just before the event.

This could be seen as good verses evil, as dark is usually associated with evil and in the film the majority of the bad incidents happen in a half light or darkness and when it is light, all is well. The framing of the shots also helps to show the clash between the modern American and Amish cultures. An example of this is when the camera is focused on the horse drawn carriage then pulls back to reveal it does not fit with the mise-en-scene. A similar effect is created when the camera has a mid-shot on John, Rachel and Samuel, which looks normal, but then the camera goes to a long shot, showing them looking out of place in a fast food cafe.

The camera shot when John and Rachel part has them next to each other in a mid-shot, but then has a long shot of John’s car driving off, showing the distance between them and there cultures. Witness is very effective in showing the gulf between the Modern American and Amish cultures and it does so using the many aforementioned methods. This greatly contributes to the success of the film, as the viewer feels pity for the simple, peaceful Amish who are up against the evil, trigger happy modern Americans. The mutually exclusive cultures also help the romantic theme, giving it the Romeo and Juliet style forbidden love.

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