Witness Study Guide

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  • Topic: Amish, Peter Weir, Police officer
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  • Published : October 10, 2012
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Article on Witness by Rosemary O’Shea

Area of Study 2 Context: Exploring Issues of Identity and Belonging

Article by Rosemary O’Shea WITNESS Director Peter Weir INTRODUCTION Peter Weir is an Australian director whose films are internationally renowned. In Gallipoli (1981), The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), The Mosquito Coast (1986) and Dead Poets Society (1989), he has created films that deal with groups under pressure. In Witness (1985) he provides the film audience with a window onto the world of the Amish in America. An Anabaptist Christian denomination particular to North America, the Amish are a devout, peaceful people. They keep themselves separate from the rest of society, believing that worldliness in the form of such modern developments as cars, tractors, electricity and telephones will distract them from devotion to God and living a simple life. Predominantly farmers, the Amish preserve traditional ways, wear plain, old-fashioned clothing and have a strong, supportive community spirit. This unites them and creates an intense sense of belonging.

Identity and Belonging in Witness
Witness presents two contrasting worlds to viewers – gentle Amish farm life and the seedy world of big city crime and crime fighters. Weir’s film explores what it means to belong to these groups. He shows the moral certainty and strong bonds that come from belonging to a group which is different from the mainstream, as if this separation helps people achieve clarity about who they really are. A personal sense of self may be at odds with others’ opinions of you. People make judgements based on other people’s appearance and the groups they belong to. These stereotypes can be inaccurate and simplistic. In Witness, this is exemplified by the tourists’ amusement at the Amish. It is depicted also through the characters of Schaeffer and McFee, for whom being senior police officials provides an effective mask for their real identities as corrupt officers. Insight English for Year 12 © Insight Publications 2007 1

Article on Witness by Rosemary O’Shea

Area of Study 2 Context: Exploring Issues of Identity and Belonging

Weir explores the role that choice plays in determining identity. It becomes clear in the film that to be a member of a group is a powerful determinant of your sense of self. Values, attitudes and behaviours that have been instilled since childhood are internalised and not easily altered. Powerful cultural barriers exist between people from different groups, which affect their ability to form close relationships. The title of the film is worth considering in terms of the Context Exploring Issues of Identity and Belonging. These two disparate groups are reluctantly connected when the boy, Samuel, witnesses a murder. The duty in Amish life is to bear witness to God’s teaching. This is a binding force in their culture. When the entire community witnesses Schaeffer’s crime and corruption it is enough to defeat him. This is a powerful victory for the pacifist, anti-violence stance of the Amish, and Weir gives a final endorsement to the strength and goodness of the group.

IDEAS & ARGUMENTS IN THE TEXT
Witness explores a number of key ideas relevant to the Context Exploring Issues of Identity and Belonging. These are outlined below and will be developed further in the following section.

Overview of key ideas and arguments
The Amish have resolutely chosen to separate themselves from mainstream American society. This choice demands significant sacrifices, not only of modern conveniences, but sometimes of full self-expression. Nonconformity by Amish members is not tolerated as this would compromise their separate identity and what makes them unique as a social group. However, as Witness shows, there is great support and acceptance for those who belong. Most people define their identity by the social group (or groups) to which they belong. John Book, his sister Elaine and the police officers, Carter and Schaeffer,...
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