Co-directors/Co-producers Joel P. Engardio and Tom Shepard talk about how they met the families portrayed in their film, gained the trust of Jehovah’s Witnesses and how Joel’s mother reacted to KNOCKING.
What led you to make KNOCKING?
Joel P. Engardio: I made KNOCKING because there needs to be a discussion about religious and personal freedoms in this country that is framed in terms other than “us versus them.” The pursuit of these freedoms is what America was founded upon, yet they are what divide us most as a nation. We engage in a protracted culture war because we are unable to reconcile our religious heritage with the progress of personal liberties. Conservatives and liberals both feel equally threatened. Each sees the other as the enemy and downfall of our nation.
Enter Jehovah’s Witnesses: a case study in how "fundamentalist" religion can peacefully co-exist with civic society. Because Jehovah’s Witnesses are so unpopular and misunderstood, they had to fight for the right to live as they choose. The cases won by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S. Supreme Court between the 1930s and 1950s set the precedent upon which others would litigate their own civil rights cases—groups Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t necessarily agree with. Yet Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t begrudge those who hold differing worldviews. They acknowledge that a right is not a right unless it belongs to everyone.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are religiously conservative for sure: if you are a member, you can’t be openly gay, you can’t get an abortion and women can’t serve as religious leaders. These doctrinal stands aren’t unique to Jehovah’s Witnesses—many religions take the same positions. But what makes Jehovah’s Witnesses different from other religions is that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t attempt to politically legislate their beliefs for everyone.
Allowing Jehovah’s Witnesses to come to your door may be annoying, but it is a necessary annoyance to live in a free society. In a multimedia age where it requires millions of dollars to mount a campaign, political or otherwise, it is important that everyone has the right to free access to their neighbors by simply knocking on a door and speaking face to face.
Personally, I don’t agree with the Jehovah’s Witness stand on various issues. So after listening to their message, I don’t join. No one has to be a Jehovah’s Witness, just as no one has to be Catholic or Mormon or Baptist. But we all have to be given the freedom to live our lives as we see fit—as long as we respect each other’s right to live differently and do no harm. Jehovah’s Witnesses offer a good example of how fundamentalist religion can remain true to itself while peacefully co-existing with a progressive society. It is how America is supposed to work.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making KNOCKING?
Tom Shepard: Early on, few broadcasters and supporters of documentary film took an interest in the film. Most knew very little about the real experiences of Jehovah’s Witnesses beyond knocking on doors. We had to knock on a lot of doors ourselves to find supporters and convince them there would be an audience for these important untold stories. Developing trust, also, with Jehovah’s Witnesses (both the subjects in our film and the national headquarters) took time. There has been little, if any, balanced coverage in the mainstream media about Jehovah’s Witnesses. We understood why Witnesses might not immediately trust our intentions to make a film about their lives.
Joel: This was a story that in the beginning no one was interested in being
told. Public television funders weren't interested. Jehovah’s Witnesses
weren’t interested. The general public wasn’t interested. Panelists that
consider funding for PBS programs were skeptical about what value a
fundamentalist religion could have in the important dialogue public
television facilitates around issues of personal liberty. They had to be
convinced that Jehovah’s Witnesses are subject to as many stereotypes and
misunderstandings that plague lots of minority groups, and in fact,
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a small slice of the pluralistic society in which we
live and have contributed to it even if you don’t agree with everything they
believe in. Likewise, the general public only knows of Jehovah’s Witnesses
as one-dimensional characters knocking on their door. It is difficult to get
the general public to see that Jehovah’s Witnesses have a relevant story. As
for Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are used to being the punch line of late-night
TV comedians. They are used to the mainstream media repeating stereotypes
and misinformation that paints Jehovah’s Witnesses only in a negative light.
So when approached to have a full documentary treatment broadcast on PBS,
Jehovah’s Witnesses weren’t exactly embracing of the idea with open arms.
How did you meet the two families portrayed in the film? Why did you choose to interview them?
Joel: I met Joseph Kempler when I worked for the ABC News documentary program Turning Point. I was developing a story about Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Holocaust. Ultimately, Turning Point was cancelled as a series and I kept Joseph’s story in my files for a time when I could produce the story myself. The fact that Joseph experienced the horrors of the camps as a Jew, but heard about the incredible stand made by Jehovah’s Witnesses against Hitler and later converted because of it, was a very unique story. Also, the fact Joseph has family members who remain Jewish was even more interesting.
I met Seth Thomas by contacting every medical center in the U.S. that does liver transplants. I knew I wanted to feature the most complicated transfusion-free surgery possible and found that USC University Hospital was one of the first medical centers to successfully do the procedure. USC shared a number of cases with me before I settled on Seth’s case. The fact that Seth was so young, 23, with his entire life ahead of him, made his stand on faith more compelling. Also, the fact that Seth has family members who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses, and who disagree with the stand against blood, offered for a nice balance to the story in seeing both points of view.
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to?
Tom: Given what each family was going through, there were intensely emotional issues that came up as they wrestled with their circumstances. Time limitations kept us from exploring all of these. Additionally, Joel and I would have liked to flesh out better how Jehovah’s Witnesses play a different and surprising role in the so called “culture wars” in the United States. In other words, their neutrality in society and politics must be read differently than other conservative Christian groups who take overt political stands. These ideas were more difficult to present cinematically, especially in a character-driven documentary.
Joel: Most everything of importance got mentioned, but I would have liked to explore more of what the DVD extras are able to do: more in-depth coverage of the history and beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses and how their fight for First Amendment freedoms benefited all Americans. Also, to explore more how and why Jehovah’s Witnesses are apolitical and do not protest groups they disagree with or use the political process to limit the freedoms of other minority groups—even though many other religions are devoted to this. It interests me how Jehovah’s Witnesses are strong enough in their own faith, strong enough in their own definition of marriage, life and morality that someone else’s does not threaten them.
You have family members who are Witnesses. How have they reacted to KNOCKING?
Joel: My mother is the only member of my extended Italian Catholic family who is one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Throughout the making of the film she was not privy to what was being done, but only said, “Please don’t make me look bad.” She was happy with the final film, if not relieved.
Tom: I don’t have any family members who are Jehovah’s Witnesses but have friends who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Making this film has been a wonderful occasion to reconnect with these friends. They have been extremely excited to see the film and are helping me promote it.
How do you think the fact that you were raised as a Jehovah’s Witness impacted the making of your film?
Joel: The journalists’ creed is objectivity, but all journalists bring their own personal history to their reports. The fact I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness has two reactions. Either, 1) I never became a member so I can’t do a fair job. I must harbor some ill will or resentment and will do a negative “hit” piece. Or 2) My mother is still a Jehovah’s Witness, so I will do a promotional piece on Jehovah’s Witnesses to make my mother happy. I reject both scenarios. I bring to the film an insight and background that enables me to better understand Jehovah’s Witnesses, and portray that understanding in my work. At the same time, I show both sides organic to the story. Both Jehovah’s Witnesses families featured in KNOCKING have members who are opposed to the religion and who express their view on camera.
What has the audience response been so far?
Tom: At film festivals and community screenings, the response has been phenomenal, both Witnesses and non-Witnesses alike. I think for the first time, many Jehovah’s Witnesses are seeing a high profile, mainstream, non-Witness-produced film more fairly represent their lives and experiences. Their responses have been tear-filled and jubilant. Non-Witnesses have come out of the screening often saying, “Wow, I never knew that about Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
We hope that the film might act as a catalyst for more thoughtful dialogue between Witnesses and their non-Witness neighbors, family members, friends and colleagues. Making the film has enabled these alliances behind the camera. Hopefully watching it will too.
Joel: KNOCKING has played at 12 film festivals and it has been a sleeper hit at every one. The festival directors inevitably put KNOCKING in the smallest theater, not knowing how the audience will react. But time and again, the festivals are scrambling to move the schedule around, put KNOCKING in the largest theater and add more screenings to accommodate the crowds. The festivals draw curious Jehovah’s Witnesses and non-Witnesses alike. Both come away learning something about themselves and each other.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Joel: The ability to tell a story few have heard before, and to see how people react when asked to look at something in a different light. There’s no reason to be afraid of what we don't understand.
Tom: Finding and telling untold stories is incredibly inspiring work. Funding this process is incredibly challenging and filled with major hurdles. I hope to continue doing this work as it fulfills urges to create, direct, edit and craft stories but also as it fulfills urges to make change in the world and diminish barriers that exist between human beings.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Joel: In an age of lowest common denominator reality television on the networks and cable, I can’t imagine anyone but PBS even considering showing a film like KNOCKING.
Tom: We chose PBS both because they saw fit to support our vision of this film and because it would introduce the stories to the widest possible audience. We felt it was really important for a general, well-educated audience to react and respond to our film.
What are your three favorite films?
Tom: The Times of Harvey Milk, First Person Plural, Billy Elliot
Joel: When Harry Met Sally, Roger & Me, It's a Wonderful Life
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you would be doing?
Tom: Teacher or community activist.
Joel: I don’t call myself a “filmmaker.” That’s just a fancy title. I’ve done all kinds of work, from reporting for a newspaper to waiting tables at a Red Lobster restaurant. I also drove a school bus. Some jobs you do because you need to pay the rent and there’s nothing else available. Other jobs are more fun and you’re grateful you have them. But “filmmaking” is just storytelling. We all have the potential to be filmmakers.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Tom: Be humble. Spend lots of time watching and listening to filmmakers whose work you admire. Have patience.
Joel: Don't go to film school. Get a history degree so you understand why humanity is the way it is (nothing's new, everything repeats) and learn how to interview, shoot and edit with a hands-on internship.
What sparks your creativity?
Joel: Ice cream.
Tom: Being in nature. Getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Read the filmmaker statements >>
Read about the myths and realities of Jehovah's Witnesses beliefs >>