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A Brief on Witness

This piece requires an examination of the intercultural issues and themes that emerge from the film Witness, looking at intercultural communication. In order to do this there will be an analysis of communication, looking especially at conscious and unconscious misunderstandings and cultural meanings. Secondly, the way in which values intrude on communication and create a culture clash will be looked at. Finally, the film will be assessed for examples of ethnocentrism or stereotyping.

L.A. Samovar et al. have sought to analyse intercultural communication, and especially how miscommunication occurs. They see culture as essential in understanding this, 'The knowledge that people need to have in order to function effectively in their social environment.' Triandis sees this as being tied to the theory of community, 'Cultural syndromes are a shared pattern of beliefs, attitudes, self definitions, norms, and values organized around a theme.' Examples of this can be seen clearly in the film. As the story progresses John Book and the Amish mother get progressively closer, unsettling her as she realises this goes against the social norms that enable her to function acceptably as part of her community. Brislin and Torrodo claim that when people from different cultures communicate, in the early stages of this discourse miscommunication will inevitably occur. It is defined that when interacting with a new culture a person will pass through four stages of communication competence. The first stage of communication competence is unconscious incompetence. This is seen when John Book first enters the community, and wakes up after being saved from bleeding to death. He is told that an elder has saved his life, who explains that it was not he alone who saved Book's life. John Book responds by enquiring who else was in the room helping him, to which the elder confirms that there was no one else in the room. This shows unconscious incompetence as in this Christian fundamentalist Protestant community everyone else in the room at the time obviously realises that the elder is saying that it was really God who saved Book; however, Book from a secular based community presumes he means another medic. After this stage the person will move through a period of conscious incompetence, before understanding the new culture enough to enter the stage of conscious competence. This is shown when Book sees the mother naked, but explains that he did not take things any further because he understands she would be expelled from the community. This is an example of conscious competence because he is abiding by the rules of the community, but it requires a forced and conscious effort on his part. In relation to this is the theory of cultural identity. Samovar et al. define its importance, 'Cultural identity becomes especially salient in interactions between people from different cultural groups who have been taught different sets of rules for social interaction.' Cultural identity is fluid however; David Harvey shows the way in a globalised era that people entering new cultures change identity and values, one example being the rise of Christianity in the globalised Communist China. This intricate process is shown in the film. The Amish community is against any form of violence, including the armed forces. However, after a period in the city of Philidelphia the child has changed. In his conversation with his Grandfather he expresses an opinion contrary to the community values, 'I would kill a bad man… I have seen what they do; I have seen one of them.' This of course means that now his communication based on essential meanings is out of place in his original culture. This is because perception is vital to tying together culture and communication processes, 'Perception is an important aspect of Intercultural communication, because people from separate cultures frequently perceive the world differently.' The different means of communication between people of different cultures is also addressed in this film. In her book assessing the film Rachel Palgan argues, 'Her desire for Book is seen in other ways. Use of eye contact, her caring nursing of him, the rending of Jacob's clothing and the dancing scene in the barn are all demonstrations of her passion within a restricted society.' This is relevant to what is described above because it takes time for Book to see that in these practical acts, they hold different meanings in a more restricted and overtly non-sexual society. W.B. Gudykunst and B. Mody corroborate, 'Individual's communication can be influenced by their personalities, their values or their self constraints.'

Stewart and Bennett define one of the most important concepts in intercultural communication, ethnocentrism, 'When one's own culture is seen as the centre of all reality.' Holliday et al. says ethnocentrism is essentially a type of stereotyping, 'They help us to understand foreign cultures that they act as a template, or as an ideal type, against which we can measure the unknown.' Scollen and Scollen argue that different methods of discourse can result in these different stereotypes, often leading to an unfair stereotype to persist. Palgan sees stereotypes in the film, but stereotyping in general of the city existence rather than the Amish, 'The Amish world is initially depicted as very peaceful, rural and simple… while the world of Philadelphia is dark grimy and violent.' She continues on the theme of city life stereotyping, 'Weir chooses to portray American stereotypes, especially in his depiction of the corrupt police. The scenes of urban America, where police work nightshifts and search sordid bars for criminals.' The violence of city life is shown in Book beating an innocent black suspect, and also unable to withstand the hectoring of a city invader of the Amish community and attacking him. On the other hand, the blonde contender for the mother's affections in the Amish community never acts on this, or attempts to reveal Book, despite his obvious mistrust of him. However, contrary to intercultural theory some stereotypes persist. Theory suggests new cultures change this behaviour as a person adapts and Palgan sees his leaving of his gun behind as an example of this. However, he refuses to save one of his assailants, but steals his gun and shoots dead the killer, and takes out his gun when walking to the local phone booth. Therefore, stereotyping persists over intercultural theory, with a level of ethnocentrism suggesting the moral strength of the Amish life.

Intercultural theory is the examination of discourse between people of different cultures. The film Witness does address this, with the differences in cultures being represented in early communication. Equally, the progression of communication so that people understand how to communicate in a new community is shown. The transferring of ideas is also shown. However, the stereotyping of the city male in the personage of John Book stops him completely adapting to the Amish values that underpin community and culture. Equally, an ethnocentric view of the superiority of Amish culture purveys the picture. In the final analysis, intercultural issues are rife in this film making it extremely useful for this area of study.

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