Hollywood films about exotic societies sometimes impress fans with their good acting and brilliant cinematography, but their accuracy may be questionable. For instance, twenty-five years ago the comedy “The Gods Must Be Crazy” misrepresented the Ju/’hoansi, one of the San peoples of the Kalahari, as having an idyllic life in the desert. While the gentle humor of the coke bottle falling from the sky and the ensuing story may have been good entertainment, the situation of the San people was very inaccurately portrayed, “a cruel joke” on the San according to anthropologist Richard B. Lee (1986).
Another excellent example of a misrepresentative movie was the film “Witness,” a cult favorite from 20 years ago that focused on the Amish but offended them while it was being filmed. Despite the problems of two decades ago, the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, tourism folks are promoting the film this spring to celebrate the anniversary of the original screening in 1985. According to a report on June 4 from an online version of the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau is promoting a “Witness Movie Experience Tour,” which takes tourists to “relive their favorite scenes at the movie’s former set.” The report quotes Wendy Nagle, President and CEO of the tourist bureau: “Most of [the tourists] are just delighted to reflect and remember.”
The main attraction of the tour is the 82-acre farm near Strasburg, a town southeast of the city, where the movie was filmed. Purchased in 2001 by an Amish couple, the woman of the family, Martha Beiler, greets tourists who descend on their place. The article conveys some of the flavor of the tourists, whose comments reflect their misunderstanding of Amish culture and society. One woman gets right in the face of an Amish toddler at the Beiler home and asks her a stupid question, which of course she can’t answer because she doesn’t yet understand spoken English.
The article captures the nostalgia of fans who are coming from around the country to take the tour and revel in their recollections of their favorite scenes. One couple loved the movie’s dancing scene in the barn shadows, for instance. The article quotes a critical comment by one of the tour guides, John Graham, who points out some inaccuracies in the movie portrayal of the Amish dress patterns. He cynically mentions that “for many people, I’m sure, everything they learned about the Amish they learned from Witness.”
Another tourism official, Peter S. Seibert, president of Lancaster’s Heritage Foundation, observes that the tours are not attracting too much local interest—the fans are coming from across the continent. Seibert indicates that “there are people that are really fanatical about the movie, and they’ll be like, ‘Where was this scene shot?’…”
Donald Kraybill, in his wonderful book The Riddle of Amish Culture, provides an effective balance against the promoters with his perspective on the controversy surrounding the filming back in 1984. He indicates that the Amish in Lancaster County at the time were especially incensed by the fact that the lead actor in the film, Harrison Ford, while dressed as an Amish man, was shown fighting because of the way “his” adoptive Amish family was being mistreated. The Amish would rarely if ever fight like that. They also felt deceived when the lead actress, Kelly McGillis, who played the part of the widowed Amish woman, lived in disguise for a few days with an Amish family.
In addition to the depiction of violence, Kraybill gives other reasons the Amish were so opposed to the filming. One problem for them is that they have historically opposed all films and television—they dislike the worldliness that Hollywood represents. Also, they are opposed to publicity, and resent being exploited by a movie such as that one. Unable to actually prevent the filming, they were still able to present their opinions of it quite effectively. When one of their leaders mentioned the possibility of them moving away from Lancaster County to avoid the exploitation, Pennsylvania government officials listened.
They soon crafted a written agreement with the state officials that provided guarantees the state would not promote films or television shows that focus on the Amish, or use the Amish as actors. The agreement also stipulated that the state would not support movie makers that try to film the Amish without their permission, and that the government would let potential producers know of the opposition in the Amish communities to having their pictures taken and having their culture misrepresented.
Obviously, the film is history—something to celebrate by county promoters—and the tourists keep coming. If only they could re-make that awful scene near the end when the good cop (Ford) is climbing up inside a huge silo on the farm to escape from the bad cop who is trying to kill him. While very high in the silo, good cop Ford pulls something that releases many tons of grain to cascade down and bury the bad cop at the bottom. Amish farms make natural sets for murdering people. But are vast tons of grain really stored at the tops of silos?
Perhaps the tourists at the Beiler farm should ask Mr. Beiler if he too keeps tons of grain stored at the top of his silo—just in case they’d be attacked by another bad Philadelphia cop. Would he respond sarcastically that actually he keeps silage in his silo, or would he just respond with that gentle Amish chuckle and remain quiet until the tourists left?