‘Witness’ to a Film: Group Explores Movie Mania in Amish Country

Corn stalks stretched skyward, conspiring with a slight hill to obscure an already elusive homestead deep in Amish country.

Then, almost as if by magic, the scene revealed itself, resembling nothing so much as a postcard: a barn, an elaborate birdhouse just off to the side of the driveway, a black cast-iron bell set atop a white house, a pond tucked away in the background. After a two-hour trek – the last leg of it spent navigating narrow roads outside Intercourse, Pa., that might better be assayed by horse-drawn buggies than motor coaches – the tour bus carrying nearly 40 Jewish seniors came to a grinding halt.

The view outside was unmistakable, at least for those who happened to see the 20-year-old, indelible Harrison Ford movie "Witness." In front of the group from the JCC Klein Branch who had viewed the film just last week, stood the farm locale that sheltered Ford's character, Det. Capt. John Book, in his quest to protect an Amish boy who had witnessed a brutal murder. For many of the 37 seniors, the trip to Pennsylvania Dutch country and a working Amish farm – one that just happened to be the set for a Hollywood film – was an enlightening experience.

"I don't want to get too mystical, but it really just makes the movie come to life," said 65-year-old Bernice Kaplan.

Once the bus doors opened, heavy farm odors surged in. But that didn't stop the passengers from excitedly stepping off the bus and setting off on an exploration of the site.

"It's nice to get out of the city," remarked Cantor Burt Naden from Beth Emeth-B'nai Yitzhok in Northeast Philadelphia.

People flocked to a 7-year-old Amish boy and his younger sister who sat beneath a tree, offering lemonade to thirsty visitors.

In April, Martha and Ivan Bieler, an Amish couple with seven children, began to host tourists at the farm made famous by the work of Australian director Peter Weir in 1985. The Bielers purchased the property in 2001.

The movie itself explores the consequences and conflicts inherent in cross-cultural transactions. Ford's character hides for a time in the reclusive Amish community – donning authentic clothing in the attempt to blend in – and in the process develops a strong attraction to the mother of the boy he's protecting.

That character, Rachel Lapp, was played by Kelly McGillis.

Through a series of scenes between the actors, the film explores the relationships between people from contrasting worlds.

No TV, Radio or Newspapers
Tour guide Joe Calta then led the Klein group into a building where one of the film's romantic interludes took place. In the barn – where a buggy marked the spot occupied by Ford's broken-down car – Calta invoked one of the more memorable moments: The big-city detective and Amish mother dance to the 1960s' Sam Cooke song "(What a) Wonderful World" before being discovered by Rachel's father, Eli Lapp, who needless to say is disapproving of the exchange.

Walking from the barn to the house where many of the interior shots were filmed, 61-year-old Judi Adler remarked that the place reminded her of the Orthodox West Bank settlement where her daughter, son-in-law and six grandchildren live. When she visits them, she spends her time adopting to a lifestyle she doesn't normally practice.

"It's so similar," said Adler. "No television, no radios, no outside newspapers."

After the tour of the set – which is open to tourists until December as part of Lancaster County's celebration of the movie's 20th anniversary and its release later this month on DVD – the seniors headed to nearby Lancaster proper for a tour of the Lancaster Cultural History Museum.

The museum's "Witness to 'Witness' " exhibit features memorabilia – culled mostly from local residents who bought the items as souvenirs when production wrapped up – including the phone booth Ford's character uses and strands of rope incorporated in the barn-raising scene.

At the museum, the Klein contingent also read about the history of the Amish, a group whose religious beliefs outlaw many modern conveniences, such as owning motor vehicles. The Amish trace their origins to Switzerland and southern Germany, and count some 230,000 adherents in the United States. According to the museum's exhibit, roughly 54,000 live in Pennsylvania.

Asked why she signed up for the trip, which began at 8:15 a.m. in the Northeast and ended just after 6 p.m., 82-year-old Sylvia Brooks said she wanted to learn something.

"I want to know about the people," Brooks replied, "and experience something I haven't seen before."

Others, such as 84-year-old Eva Gendelman, just wanted to get out of the city for a day.

"I take all the trips given by the Klein branch," she declared. "It gets you the hell out of the house!"



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