When my mom took me door-knocking on Saturday mornings to deliver the Watchtower magazine and a Bible message to the neighborhoods of Saginaw, Michigan, I didn’t realize I was a defender of America’s essential freedoms: speech, religion, and personal liberty. I was just a kid, who would rather be home watching cartoons on television like the other kids. At that age, being raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was an embarrassment because it meant I was different. Getting sent to the principal’s office for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance was not a typical third-grade offense.
Now, as an adult who became a journalist but never joined the religion, I can see why it’s important that Jehovah’s Witnesses are different. That’s why I wanted to make Knocking. Our essential freedoms are at war with each other — a culture war. We are divided by the very principles that defined America. But when Jehovah’s Witnesses knock, they are demonstrating that the freedoms of speech, religion, and personal liberty can exist in harmony. It is how a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, an abortion clinic, and a gay married couple can peacefully co-exist on the same block. Jehovah’s Witnesses are moral conservatives who only compete in the marketplace of ideas. They attempt to persuade — not impose — their beliefs at your door. If you say, “No thanks,” they won’t go behind your back and amend the Constitution to suit their worldview. The only world they want to control is their own congregation, which is their right, and joining it is a personal choice. Jehovah’s Witnesses keep religion out of politics. Their separation of church and state is absolute: they don’t vote, pledge allegiance to the flag or serve in the military. Yet as otherwise law-abiding, tax-paying citizens, they remind us that the America worth fighting for is an America that does not force people to follow a single ideology with patriotic fervor. And as a group with fundamental religious beliefs, they remind us that it is possible to stand firm in your faith without feeling threatened by those who choose a different path.
The knocking may be inconvenient, but it is a necessary annoyance in a free society. And when their own First Amendment rights were threatened, they went to the U.S. Supreme Court a record 62 times. Jehovah’s Witnesses prevailed, winning 50 cases that expanded liberty for everyone — even groups they disagree with. Now we can all equally share our own message. Better we hear an idea we don’t like than be forced to live by it.
— Joel P. Engardio
I am drawn to documentary filmmaking as a vehicle for telling untold stories and doing so in a way that won’t trivialize or sensationalize the issues and subjects who appear on screen. There are few journalistic outlets left in our fast-paced society which allow us to relax into a story, meet engaging characters and be taken on a journey that really challenges what we know and how we think about the world. Knocking is one of those outlets and was a privilege to co-direct.
Most people have only a vague notion of who Jehovah’s Witnesses are. Before making this film, I knew very little about them — their beliefs, their history, their family life and their ways of congregating. In Knocking, we tried to unpackage the stereotype of Jehovah’s Witnesses as proselytizing zealots. By delving deeply and personally into the lives of several Witnesses, watching them struggle with life’s biggest challenges, watching them celebrate deeply-held convictions and watching them negotiate their faith in a world often at odds, even hostile, toward them, we begin to empathize and see Jehovah’s Witnesses as real human beings, not just caricatures on our doorsteps. Once this happens, our minds open to important and rarely discussed information: how Witnesses paved legal precedents regarding First Amendment rights, how they modeled resistance to totalitarian authority in Nazi Europe, and how their unconventional beliefs prompted innovation in medicine that benefits all of us.
Whether or not you agree with Jehovah’s Witness beliefs, it is incumbent on you to know their story, to learn their history, as it is part of your own history, and to take note of all the important ways they have intersected with society. I hope Knocking adds to this body of knowledge and gives its viewers pause before avoiding the door next time a Witness comes knocking.
— Tom Shepard
Joel Engardio, Producer
Joel P. Engardio was the recipient of the 2000 National Press Foundation award for science writing. In 2003, the Society of Professional Journalists named him best opinion writer in Northern California. He was a finalist for the University of Missouri's 1999 national lifestyle writing awards in multicultural journalism. Engardio has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Weekly, Newsweek, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, and P.O.V. magazine. In television, he worked as an associate producer for ABC News at 20/20 and the network's documentary unit, Turning Point. Engardio also consults as a media and communications strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union. He graduated from Michigan State University, where he majored in journalism and history. Engardio was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in Saginaw, Michigan, but never joined the religion. His mother is the only Jehovah’s Witness in his mostly Catholic family. Engardio lives in San Francisco.
Tom Shepard, Producer
Tom Shepard has directed and produced documentaries for over 15 years. His film Scout's Honor won the Audience Award for Best Documentary and Freedom of Expression Award at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Scout's Honor was broadcast nationally on PBS when it opened P.O.V.'s 14th season. In 2006, he co-directed and produced Knocking, a film about Jehovah's Witnesses, which broadcast nationally on the Independent Lens. Shepard helped coordinate national outreach campaigns for both of these films. He also has produced, directed and edited shorter films for the public television series Voting in America and Spark. Previously, Shepard worked as an editor at National Public Radio for Linda Wertheimer. At NPR, he co-produced Listening to America, an audio documentary on the history of public radio in America. He graduated from Stanford University, where he majored in biology and film. He is the former Chairman of New Day Films and lives in San Francisco.