Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Amish Ire

What's this?

Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, BOOM!

Amish suicide bomber.

OK, I had to get that out of my system so I can write about what I want to explore, which is the controversy, or furor, or row, if you will, over the filming of the Hollywood movie "Witness" in 1984 here in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

I didn't live here then, but I've since heard the stories -- everybody liked Harrison Ford, by the way. Said he was just a regular guy. ("Witness" trivia: It was the first big-screen role for Viggo Mortensen, from the Lord of the Rings movies. Nobody who wasn't on the set seems to remember him, though. Who knew he was Amish? Aragorn Stoltzfus.)

That contretemps come back to mind lately because in many ways it offers an enlightening parallel to the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons of Muhammad.

The obvious difference is that the Amish did not act out their outrage by burning the Australian embassy (director Peter Weir is an Aussie), but if you block out that one glaring fact, you can see some interesting things.

Like the Muslims in Europe, the Amish here are a religious minority, one that deliberately sets itself apart from the mainstream culture. They are subject to a certain amount of rough handling in Western secular culture; local jokes abound about their simple-mindedness or lack of hygeine. Unlike the Muslims in Europe, of course, they are not backed up by a huge swath of the globe where their religion rules, nor does their holy scripture promise them dominion over all the Earth and command them to behead nonbelievers. They just sell us scrapple and shoo-fly pie, which is a more humane death by artery-clogging.

When the Amish learned that they were about to be the subject of a Hollywood film, they were astonished. And worried. Why on earth would Hollywood want anything to do with them? They were accustomed to the curiosity of their "English" neighbors, but Hollywood represents to the Amish the apex of the "worldly" culture of sex, violence, selfish individualism, and reckless secularism that they have carefully excluded themselves from in America. These, after all, are people who consider it the height of vanity to simply take pictures or make images of themselves. And suddenly they were about to have Hollywood cameras thrust upon them.

Anyone who has seen the film knows it presents a completely adoring image of the Amish. "Witness" contrasts the seedy and corrupt world of the Philadelphia police department with the pacifist purity of the Amish farmers. But however angelic the vision was, it was imposed from without. The Amish were being used, objectified, taken as a mere a symbol to represent a one aspect of the conflict in the non-Amish world between pacifism and violence.

The case was complicated by the role of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Motion Picture and TV Development, which had solicited Paramount to do the picture, eager for tourism dollars. The Amish may be simple about many things, but they do understand business, and they knew they were being exploited for money by their own state government.

Amish bishops warned their people not to participate in any way in the film. The film didn't nned them anyhow. At every outdoor shoot in Amish country, crowds of Plain folk gathered to watch out of curiosity. Kelly McGillis, who was to play an Amish woman, spent several days as a guest at an Amish home without revealing her purpose (to learn how to look and sound Amish) or her identity. When it was learned, she was asked to leave.

When a few Amish bishops sat through the resulting film, their worst fears were confirmed. They were horrified by the scene where Ford, wearing in Amish clothing, kicks ass in a street fight. This was a direct insult to their religion. Plain dress sets the Amish apart from the world more thoroughly than any other thing. Their simple garb is a holy uniform, like a nun's habit or a priest's garb, that establishes group identity and boundaries. What wears plain dress is Amish, and they are a community of faith, and pacifism is at their core. The nuance of the plot -- everyone watching the fight scene in the movie would know that Ford was an actor portraying a Philadelphia police officer disguised as an Amishman, and the inappropriateness of his brawling was the point of the scene -- was immaterial to the Amish.

Weir and a local college professor with ties to the community, John A. Hostetler, clashed repeatedly over the portrayal of the Amish while the film was being made. The Amish attitude and sense of being exploited were well-known to the makers of the film. They went ahead with it anyhow.

After it was made, three bishops and another Amish leader took their protest to the state, but they got no further than the lieutenant governor. At one point there was a threat made to uproot the entire colony and go elsewhere. That got some attention, and the state authorities agreed to not do this sort of thing again. The Amish were satisfied, and the state breathed a sigh of relief, because "Witness" was able to be released without protest. It grossed tens of millions of dollars and spiked Lancaster County tourism so sharply that it has only recently begun to fade.

Few people -- if any -- outside the Amish community have raised any objection to the film. The film was within the bounds of propriety of the culture that produced it, even if it was well out of bounds for the culture that was its topic. That, it seems to me, is the essential point. Yes, the right to public speech and artistic freedom entail responsibilities. But those responsibilities are primarily to the standards of one's own culture. Sensitivity to the culture of the "other" is a desirable thing, but it is not a trump.