Witness, film shots

Witness directed by Peter Weir


The Shot is the basic unit of film, similar to the basic unit of writing being the Sentence. But the Scene acts like the Paragraph. It is an organized collection of basic units that all together provide Meaning and link to other such collections of basic units. It’s difficult to keep track of shots while watching a film, but it is not too hard to record scenes.


Opening Scene: establishes the setting, Amish country, crops growing, people rooted in the soil (symbolically), looking as if they are growing out of the ground. Note the slow pace of the visual and the slow paced music.

Church Scene: very quiet, the human voice organizes the scene orally and unifies the group at the funeral.

Scene inside house: outside children are seen playing, inside a discussion of the death of Jacob, a member of the community, easy talk and slow paced, humor, humanizing the Amish.

The main characters are introduced: Rachel, wife of Jacob, Daniel, to be a suitor of Rachel, Samuel, Rachel’s son, old man, Samuel’s grandfather

Wheat field Scene: Establishing shots of Amish country, very slow paced action scenes of rural life. Rachel and Samuel making trip to town, first time for Samuel. Note truck noise. The noise increases approaching the town in contrast to music of farm scenes.

Scene on train, train outpaces Daniel in buggy.

Boy sees new sights, music fades, city noise takes over

Train Station.  No music, boy curious. Cultural misunderstanding. Boy sees back of man who he mistakes as Amish but in Seraphic Jew.

Samuel goes to restroom and witnesses murder of under-cover policeman.

Samuel interrogated by the investigating police detective. Humor to break tension, reference to other policeman as a “runt.”

In cop car. Constant noise, dark interior, violence. The detective reveals his name, “Book. John Book.”

Bar scene. Music, loud and discordant in comparison to soothing music in Amish scenes. Cops brutalize an innocent suspect.

Book’s family / sister. Chaotic domestic scene in contrast to tranquil Amish domestic scene. Book has no other family. Amish, extended family.

Diner scene. Traffic noise outside. Religious conflict. John Book does not say grace at meals.

Police Station. Samuel identifies cop killer to Book. Constant noise. Sound of typewriter throughout scene and the constant rustling of papers. McFee, a cop and killer of the undercover cop, identified by Samuel by picture in paper.

Betrayal scene. John Book confides to his superior, Paul, another crooked cop. Book is considered as part of Paul’s family, contrast with the Amish.

Parking Garage scene. McFee tries to kill Book. Book shot and knows Paul is crooked and warns his sister.

Escape to Amish country.

Book calls partner, Carter, and warns him.

McFee and Paul at Book’s sister’s home. They search the car, threaten Book's sister.

Amish farm. Book drops off Rachel and Samuel, wrecks the car and is taken in by Amish.

Car wreck scene. Note the noise, very noticeable since all else is quiet. Book insists on not going to the hospital since there will be a paper report made. Paper = Danger.

Book healed by Amish, recovery. Amish afraid of outside interference. “Doctor,” a healer not a registered doctor,  must speak with elders.

Book feverish. Music again, slow paced. Cared for by Rachel. Book feverish, and “purging’ himself of his violent language.

Book recovers enough to make trip to town to telephone his partner.

Police station. No way for the crooked cops to locate Book. No paper trail.

Bedroom. Book in front of the elders. Elders discuss Book, want him to leave farm.

Samuel discovers Book’s gun. Symbol of violence. Book tries to educate Samuel about danger. Rachel misunderstands. Book thinks guns are safe if you know how to use them. He understands the symbol of the gun.

Book and Rachel talk and Book surrenders the gun.

Grandfather talks to Samuel about violence. Similar to High Noon, the three types of violence are introduced: non-violence, justifiable violence, and unprovoked violence.

Means vs. Ends discussed by grandfather. Samuel resists instruction.

Grandfather: “Having seen, you become one of them.” Gives him the biblical admonition:

“Touch not the unclean things.”

Book in bedroom reading a magazine about manure. The only literature that is important to Amish is practical literature. Book wears Jacob’s clothes. “Becomes” him, takes his place.

Books makes trip to town to call Carter, his partner.

Book doesn’t fit in Jacob’s clothes, too big for them, too much of a man: “A big guy.”

Book gives gun back to Rachel. Rachel handles gun again, “touches” the unclean thing.

Book learns about Amish, learns from child, Samuel.

Book works for grandfather, emphasis on Book’s incompetence about matters of livelihood.

Family breakfast scene in contrast to Book’s normal eating experience, this one quiet and a real family experience. Book makes inappropriate joke based on television.

Conflict between Book and Daniel suggested. Daniel says, “You look plain Book.”(Implied compliment : a plain book, practical.)

Book in barn, working on bird house, demonstrating his practical knowledge of carpentry, admired by Rachel for his skills.

Book in barn working on car, gets radio working. The silence of his work is broken by the intrusion of modern music. The song? (It’s a) Wonderful World with lyrics most appropriate to our theory, the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge:

Don't know much about geography

Don't know much trigonometry

Don't know much about algebra

Don't know what a slide rule is for


But I do know that one and one is two

And if this one could be with you

What a wonderful world this would be


Book is drawn to this music as he is drawn to the simpler world, the one plus one world,  of the Amish, drawn to a simpler world with Rachel. She and John dance and her is introduced to the modern seductions of flirting, sexually dangerous frivolity, fun. Book sings along with the music, “I love you.” He voices the words, but for Rachel (in an oral society) to voice the words is also to Mean them.  Words themselves have power. They mean what they say. The Voice unites.

Interruption by grandfather. He understands the danger of the intrusion of music from the outside. His is the voice of authority. Grandfather worried about community talk, how others are talking about Rachel and John. He is worried that Rachel will be shunned. He says, “They can do it.” Fear holds the community together. Rachel says, “I’ll be the judge.” He says, “They will be the judge.” Obvious conflict between Individuality & Group Responsibility & Cohesion

Cops. Paul interrogates Book’s partner. Paul says, “We were partners, etc.” Paul tries to create solidarity with partner: “We’re a cult, too. A club. With rules. John broke our rules.”

Amish, Barn raising scene. Group solidarity. Book demonstrates his practical knowledge and gains admiration of the people. Group organized by the Voice of authority. Men and women separate functions. Children work with the adults, not playing separate from them. There are no written plans. The plans are expressed through the voice of the elders who base them on tradition. Communal enjoyment not individual feelings.  Music mixed with the rhythm of working. Boys working with men; girls working with women.

Book gains admiration of men and women by his woodworking skills. No individual voices, just communal voices of people at work.

Amish prayer and meal. Women serve. Elders watch Rachel and John.

Finishing Barn. All working together. men in the barn, women quilting, talking about Rachel and John.

Barn finished. Rachel introduces John Book to barn owners. Men leave singing together, carrying their tools.

Book and Rachel. Stormy night. Rachel takes sponge bath. Book watches. No sound but water. Tension. Possible resolution. Unable to resolve conflict, Book looks away. Rachel turns away, rejected.

John in his room alone.

Next morning, Book hunts for Rachel to talk to her. He explains that he / they cannot resolve conflict. He only understands simple, either - or (literate) logic : He stays or she leaves with him.

Trip to town. Book’s violence and lack of self-control endangers the community. Book calls partner. Partner has been killed. Book cannot control emotions. Book calls Paul and threatens him.

Book attacks town bullies. Grandfather warns him not to: “It’s not our way.” Book replies, “It’s my way.” Resolution of conflict through violence.

Samuel at play with toy that Book bought. A going away present. Rachel knows that Book has resolved his conflict and will leave. Grandfather says, “He’s going back to his world. Where he belongs.”

Rachel puts away her white cap. She resolves her conflict by deciding to go with him and leave the Amish. “Love conquers all” theme not feasible.

Killers arrive. Violence enters the community and changes the nature of the conflicts. Car comes over the hill and turns off the lights and back away. Three killers come into the community. Note comparison to opening Amish scene. The killers are above the ground, not of it.

Killers enter farmhouse after Book.

Grandfather warns Book, solidarity.

Book in barn with Samuel. Samuel told to leave. Samuel mentions gun: Book and Gun go together.

Book tries to start car.

Gun shots. Samuel returns to help Book.

Book uses nature to kill one of the rogue cops,  Fergie. Drowned in a flood of grain, killed by Amish abundance of produce.

McFee fires shots, unable to help partner.

Samuel returns.

Paul uses Rachel and Grandfather as hostages.

Grandfather signals for Samuel to ring bell to warn community. Community = Strength.

Book uses Fergie’s gun to kill McFee.

Samuel rings bell.

Paul threatens to kill Rachel. Voices are violent. Lots of yelling.

Book surrenders gun.

Conflict between Paul and Book resolved non-violently by Amish solidarity, strength of non-violence demonstrated. Sermon on the Mount example: Turn the other cheek as only way to conquer violence.

Book articulates the conflict: impossible for Paul to resolve conflict through violence.

Paul surrenders. His violent solution unable to resolve the conflict between him and Book. Paul defeated by nonviolence. Paul arrested.

Rachel watches police and re-thinks her decision to join Book.

Book and Samuel at pond. Book decides to leave. Samuel says goodbye. No words spoken by Book.

Rachel with cap on. Her conflict is now resolved differently. She turns away.

Book leaves. His conflict is resolved. He walks away. Nothing more to be said.

Grandfather has last words: “You be careful among the English.”

Book drives off. Daniel walks toward farm. Final conflicts resolved. Closing scene mirrors opening scene, provides unity to film, open and closes the film with peaceful, rural images. The Amish wisdom is established.

There are so  many aspects of the film to talk about that I’m reluctant to introduce more, but I play the short film about the making of the film that is part of the dvd we are using. Much of what the actors, director, and photographer say about the making of the film confirm our theory. I’m struck by one explanation that John Seele gives about lighting a scene from looking at paintings by the seventeenth century artist Johannes Vermeer. In the scene where Book lies in bed attended by the Amish Elders, Steele lights the scene copying Vermeer’s technique of having light come in from a window on the left, illuminating the key figure and having the darkness move to the right. It’s a basic tenet of drama, stage left and stage right, that has been transferred to film making, that the good guys enter from the left moving right and the bad from the right moving left. This principle unconsciously acknowledges the conditioning all literates (in the West) have undergone by print: we read from left to right, top to bottom. Going against this movement creates tension. Steele uses Vermeer for the same reason. Book is the good guy, wreathed in light, but he with the Elders who, though not bad, are not going to accept him as he is. His healing would have to be from more than his physical wounding.

Witness seems as if it were made to illustrate the theory. But when listening to the actors and director talk about the film, all saying what a wonderful experience it was to make it, all praising its greatness, all noting that being a part of the making of film was the high point of their career, some mentioned the class of cultures, but none mentioned that it was a class of literate and oral cultures. None mentioned that their participation was memorable because it validated their own experience, their own transition from a tranquil, unified, but limited world into a frantic, fragmented, and expansive one.

Another reading, of many. John Book as Jesus Christ (the oral Old Testament patriarchy in conflict with the written New Testament democracy & individuality). The scene with the statue in the railroad station a visual analog to the scene where Eli removes the nearly lifeless John Book from the wrecked car. Also Book’s temptation—wealth, the woman, security & peace. Eli saying that only God can take life.


But this reading is superficial, goes nowhere, teaches nothing about the film or about film viewer.

Everyone agrees that the O-L theory [Orality-Literacy] has heightened understanding and appreciation of the film. The fact that the main character, played by Harrison Ford, the character who disrupts the patriarchal, oral, Amish society, who threatens its very existence, is named Book, a detail hardly noticed before applying the insights from the theory, is remarked upon more than any other single detail. We could spend much more time re-viewing this movie and examining scenes and shot selections and apply the theory, but we have at least one more movie to watch, one that seems made for the theory, The Reader,  directed by Stephen Daldry.