'Witness' - Peter Weir

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English Essay – ‘Witness’ by Peter Weir

The 1985 film witness, directed by Peter Weir is a crime/drama that develops the theme of conflict on a social, cultural and personal level. These areas of conflict are highlighted through the use of film techniques such as; camera shots, camera angles, lighting and costume. The film outlines the contrast between mainstream American society and the Amish community in regional Pennsylvania. While American society is seen as a violent and arrogant group of people, whereas the Amish are seen to be a peaceful, religious group of people. In this film the Amish perceive the mainstream American society to be called the ‘English’. The reason for this is the Amish originated in England so they believe that anyone else outside their culture is called the ‘English’, who if come into contact with Amish culture, will bring fear, violence and terror.

The opening scene depicts the peaceful, calm surroundings of the Amish while the funeral of Rachel’s husband is being conducted. This is most apparent in the scene where a slow panning shot is used to portray the wheat as being of a soft velvety appearance as it is blown in the wind, which highlights the world of harmony of the Amish. The funeral allows for the relationship between John Book and Rachel to develop which later creates the personal conflicts, because of Book’s mainstream American culture clashing with Rachel’s Amish religious beliefs and customs.

The journey of Rachel and Samuel Lapp to Boston to visit Rachel’s sister becomes quite an experience because Samuel is yet to witness the outside world and events that may occur. The low angle shot of the train roaring over us suggests the excitement and action that awaits in the city. The director introduces Samuel’s naivety as we see a close-up shot of Samuel waving at a balloon in the distance which shows his innocent nature. The director adds the idea of the modern American train travelling at fast speeds in comparison to the hot air balloon that is moving slowly which is in association with the Amish culture and way of life. They arrive at the train station where Samuel explores the new world and sees a bubbler to which he asks Rachel what it is, which hyperbolises his innocence and naivety. Samuel walks over to a Jewish man and mistakes him for an Amish one which the director uses to provide some comedic relief.

Samuel then enters the bathroom where he witnesses the murder. During the murder the camera focuses on Samuel’s eyes using a close up shot, showing the shock and disbelief on Samuels face. The killer is about to leave when he hears someone breathe in one of the stalls and the director creates a suspense where we see the killer kicking open the cubicle doors. The killer finally reaches the stall Samuel is in and Samuel quick wittedly slides under to the previous stall. There is a target on the wall behind Samuel which perceives us to think that Samuel should have been killed but was lucky to escape. Then John Book enters the spotlight showing his authority and power. Book walks over to Samuel and Rachel where he asks questions, which develops the cultural conflict of guns, violence and ‘whacking’ between the former and the later.

Book, Carter, Samuel and Rachel make a journey to the ‘Happy Valley’ nightclub. Book and Carter enter the club and immediately pull out a large black man whom they slam up against the car window right in front of Samuel eyes. Samuel shakes his head and Book lets the man go and says it was an ‘honest mistake’ which was not taken to kindly by the black man. The irony is quite apparent in this scene because of the name, ‘Happy Valley’ which is actually a violent, dirty nightclub. The name ‘Happy Valley’ symbolises the harmonic world of the Amish people but in mainstream American society it reinforces the Amish’s outlook of the ‘English’. The director gives us this scene to suggest our stereotypical perception of African Americans and their own...
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