Identity and Belonging: Witness
‘Where we come from and our attitude to it are powerful forces in our lives. ’ “This gun of the hand is for the taking of human life. We believe it is wrong to take a life.
That is only for God. ” The conflicting notions and difference between cultures is thoroughly represented throughout Peter Weir’s stunning and thematically moving film ‘Witness’ in which two different worlds with two different value systems are profoundly presented to its viewers.
Having a sense of belonging is essential to identity; it is a basic human instinct to belong and to have faith in certain beliefs, the preoccupations meaningfully explored within Weir’s creations. Moreover, through the use of film techniques and representation, Weir has managed to captivate and compel his audience to indulge into the hardships and strategic traditions in which the Amish community follow and also allows the audience to gain a further understanding to the extreme disciplinary law of the ‘Ordnung. The protagonist, John Book, faces a tedious journey to bring justice to contemptible crime and must undergo an ultimate sacrifice of ‘changing his ways,’ which would cause a crucial disregard to all his life lessons that have shaped and guided him, in order to gain the acceptance he subsequently strives for from his ‘former carers’ and unique counterparts of the Amish community. Book also faces the riveting dilemma to assert or deny his disreputable love with Rachel as well as apprehend where he truly belongs.
Weir’s film is positioned between two worlds; the good and the evil, decency and corruption, head and heart, the Amish and the ‘English’. Throughout the film, the complexities of parallel worlds are explored where the different worlds begin to sporadically intertwine. ‘We want nothing to do with your laws,’ at the beginning of the film when Rachel first becomes subject to Detective John Book’s questioning and police procedures, she is taken out of her comfort zone and is presented with a world she knows not of.
Rachel is more so driven by the forceful nature of her own predecessors and ‘elders’ which intuitively leads to her attitude of not wanting to abide by the laws of a different world from her own. The passiveness of the Amish is explored as they are depicted as being self-cast as outsiders, basing their lives solely on natural things due to their own stringent belief that it will bring them closer to God.
Furthermore, the audience is able to gain an insight to the cultural restrictions in which the Amish live by; living in a rural society where there are no radios, telephones, or televisions, where the only means of transportation is a horse and buggy, and where one dresses to look “plain. ” The depiction of the Amish community in the film is extraordinarily contrasted with the modern contemporary society of the Americans, otherwise known as ‘the English’ by the Amish people.
Book’s world is portrayed as being the human function of corruption where ‘somewhere along the way [cops] lose their meaning. ’ Book is inevitably accustomed to deceit, brutality and violence that it consumes him and is the very essence in which drives him forward and acts accountable for his actions. He is inescapably surrounded by it, so much so that he is not completely oblivious to the corruption occurring within the very organisation that is meant to oppose it, his own police department. Book’s duty to investigate corruption within his police department leaves him shot.
This violence from Book’s own world and place of belonging is what ironically leads to him going into hiding amongst the Amish people in order for him to protect Rachel and Samuel. He is significantly driven by his job of policing that it acts as a powerful force in his life in which he is suited to, ‘[Elaine] thinks you like policing because you think you are right about everything and you’re the only one who can do anything…’ Evidently, Book is quite complacent living his own life in his contemporary society as it composes of his identity and sense of belonging.
At a further contrast, the contemporary society of the Americans deem to be utterly dependant on technology, not just as helpful tools but also for ones own sense of luxury. In the film, when Book is in town with Eli accompanied by other Amish they are ambushed by tourists who simply treat them as though they are placed there for their own amusement, the Amish are not acknowledged as being actual human beings. The tourists bombard them with taking photos and Book does not follow the placid way of the Amish, ‘Lady, you take my picture with that thing and I’m gonna rip your brassiere off… nd strangle you with it! You got that? ’ Though Book attempts to conform to the ways of the Amish he is still so accustomed to his old ways that where he comes from is his own sense of belonging. Furthermore, Book’s trial of ‘fitting in’ with the Amish is ultimately tested when he cannot rid himself of his urban assertiveness and simply turns to violence when a group of ‘townies’ harass Daniel Hochleitner, of the Amish, to which Book violently punches one of them in the face though ‘it’s not our way [of the Amish]. Book is fundamentally fixed in his ways, ‘it’s my way,’ and initially disregards his attempts to fit in with the Amish and gain their acceptance. Consequently, Book’s violent actions lead to Schaeffer and his despicable partners being able to locate and track down where Book is staying in hiding. Though Book has sufficiently failed in his attempts to conform to the ways of the Amish, it is evident that he finally makes a connection with the Amish community during the traditional barn-raising scene in the film where Book helps out and realises that for the Amish, community is more important than any other modern necessity.
Despite Book’s connection with the Amish he is still mildly branded as an outsider to their community and is only truly accepted through the eyes of Rachel. During the course of the film, Book and Rachel begin to grow affectionate for one another. The attraction between the two only grows stronger as the film progresses and Weir uses intended camera angles and film techniques to represent a change in the status quo. When Book and Rachel are together, they are always filmed through doorways. Book is depicted as always being in the doorway, symbolising that he cannot get past it whereas Rachel is always in through it.
However, as the attraction grows stronger, specifically after they kiss, Book talks to Rachel through the door of chicken wire, the holes in the wire imply that Book can now get through to the Amish community yet some of his own identity and predispositions will always remain behind the chicken wire. More so the attraction is shown within the scene in the barn in which Book is fixing his car with his radio on, an ultimate defiance of the ways of the Amish, to which Rachel responds positively.
They begin to dance and although Book appreciates the moment, he does not fully understand that he is breaching the wishes of the elders in the community and ominously causes Rachel to act in such a manner which is stupendously frowned upon by her peers. Despite Eli’s warning that she will be “shunned” if she becomes too close to John, Rachel defiantly gives in to her feelings for the outsider. Though they come from two different worlds, hold different values, nd live different lives, their emotions and feelings towards one another prove to be the same. Eventually Book comes to terms with his limitations and realises that he does not belong in Lancaster County with Rachel despite his utmost attempts to try and change himself in order to belong. Book remains too dependant on things from his world and his reliance on technology bounds him. The life lessons and fixed ways in which Book continuously holds onto prove to a big part of his identity that to completely disregard them would be a vital sacrifice.
His attempts to try and belong with the Amish are boldly thwarted by his own understanding of his significant influence on young Samuel, ‘I would only kill the bad man. ’ His very presence brings danger and the aspect of life in which the Amish try to avoid, that is, murder. The place in which one comes from, one’s home and upbringing, proves to be a powerful force in one’s life. Having a place to belong is essential to identity and life lessons taught prove to be guidance throughout life.
It is essential to belong and people will try and change themselves in order to feel as though they fit in. However, to merge two completely different worlds together would be controversial and ultimately unprincipled. The love shared between Book and Rachel would never work because they were two different, they were bestowed with different values, different upbringings and essentially different morals. Book could never stay with the Amish, “He’s going back to his world, where he belongs. He knows it, and you know it, too. ”