If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t spoil it here — watch it first, then come back.
There are a substantial amount of films with the same rough outline: a protagonist is caught up in some violent conflict, is forced to stay or live among a more “tribal” people, and learns that what many consider a savage or pitiful way of life, is actually respectable and healthy for the soul. He develops an affinity for them over the duration of the movie and often changes sides in the conflict at hand. This is a common storyline in some pretty major films: “Dances With Wolves,” “The Last Samurai,” “Avatar,” and “District 9,” to name a few.
It closely borders the “noble savage” trope, but the best of these movies approach the foreign cultures, real or fictitious, with a sense of dignity and respect (unlike the trope). The main character is not a tourist nor is he some kind of savior (except maybe in “Avatar”) — it is more of a conversion story, where the protagonist winds up understanding and joining their cause.
This familiar storyline is re-imagined in the classic film by Peter Weir, “Witness,” starring Harrison Ford. Instead of a distant country or planet, the group in question is the Amish in our backyard. Ford plays a detective investigating a homicide — his witness is a young Amish boy who saw the murder and is willing to testify. Through a series of events, the boy, his mother, and Detective Book are forced to flee and hide in Amish country. There, he learns a bit of their culture — their stoicism, pacifism, connection to hard work with their hands, and their piety. He may not agree with everything they do, but he comes to respect it.
Calling a people “simple” is most often used as an insult — calling a person simple usually means they are dumb. However, living simply is much different, especially in a day and age where material goods are easily accessible, and our culture is constantly obsessed with the principle of more — to choose to live simply takes a whole lot of discipline. The Amish are often mocked and ridiculed for the way the clothes they wear, their beards and how they ride in carriages as modern cars speed on by. I admittedly know very little about them, and as a complete and total stranger to their beliefs, I in no way, shape or form can attest to the accuracy or inaccuracies of this film in that regard. However, “Witness” poses the idea that while they may live simply, they certainly not a simple people.
Detective Book begins to learn that life in the country — life by what is built from one’s own hands, one’s own sweat and labor — is perhaps closer to the way we as human beings are built to live. Sure, like me he doesn’t understand the depths of what it means to be Amish, but he gleans some of those valuable lessons along his journey. There is no doubt that he will not only return home with a newfound respect for what used to seem like strange people, but his life is richer for it, and if he applies those lessons later in life, it will continue to be enriched.
Again, it’s important to separate this from the “noble savage” idea. Using stereotypes like that makes an outsider feel good about himself — that is a lot different from someone learning to respect and embrace another culture, even if he doesn’t assimilate into it entirely. I grew up overseas my whole life, and I have come to believe that there are valuable facets in every culture that every other culture could benefit from. I am an American, and I believe America has so many fundamental values that I love and respect — when I have lived in other countries, I have thoroughly enjoyed speaking with my local friends, getting to know them and the facets of their culture, and sharing some of my own. Doing this in Karen State, Burma, was a profound experience that has stuck with me ever since.
Granted, I’m not sure this is really possible if you’re just a tourist, but if you ever get the chance to live outside the U.S., I would recommend sharing culture with those who are willing. More importantly, I would recommend listening to and learning from them. You will undoubtedly gain as much (if not more) than you have to offer. In fact, I would argue (and I think Peter Weir would too) that multiple cultures exist within the United States as well, and we all have a lot to learn from one another. We live right next to fascinating worlds, rich with culture and some very inspiring values — to never explore and learn from them would be a shame.
Featured image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.