He’s not a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but Joel P. Engardio wants you to know that the religious group does more than just knock on your door.
Raised as a Witness in Saginaw, where he spent much of his boyhood going door to door with his devout mother, Engardio respects the controversial Christian group’s role in society and thinks more people ought to know about it.
In his new documentary, “Knocking” – to be shown at this weekend’s Flint Film Festival – Engardio, a San Francisco-based filmmaker and freelance journalist, cites the Witnesses’ roles in supporting civil liberties, condemning the Holocaust and aiding in medical advances.
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“The Jehovah’s Witnesses are famous because everyone has had one knock on their door, but people don’t seem to know anything about them,” Engardio said in a recent interview. “They are dismissed as irrelevant, as a cult, so I wanted to make a film that shows what they are, and the audience is left to decide.”
Engardio, 33, says he’s not partial to the Witnesses. But he believes “Knocking” has special importance because of the way the apolitical Witnesses coexist in society as opposed to right-leaning fundamentalist Christians.
“Anyone who watches the film would get the idea that they would rather have a religious person knock on their door instead of going behind their back and legislate their beliefs,” Engardio said.
In the film, directed by Engardio and Tom Shepard, the 130-year-old history of the Witnesses includes their stand against the Nazi state – they were among the first groups placed in concentration camps and used an international network of members to smuggle information out of the camps. Also highlighted is how the group’s aversion to blood transfusions – based on an interpretation of the Bible that blood is sacred – had led to advancements in bloodless surgery.
But Engardio’s biggest argument for the Witnesses’ importance is in the group’s battles for protections in free speech and free assembly. Jehovah’s Witnesses have gone before the U.S. Supreme Court 46 times, more than any other group, the film says, most recently in a 2002 Supreme Court decision affirming speech rights in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t activists,” Engardio said. “They didn’t go to court to defend society, only because they tried to do their commandments, but the (rulings) served everybody.”
Engardio began knocking on doors with his mother – the only Witness in his mainly Catholic family – at “age 5 or 6,” he said. “At that age, I didn’t realize what we were doing. … As I got older, I would be hoping we wouldn’t come to the door of a teacher or classmate. There would be a certain self-awareness or embarrassment.
“Those who knock today, it’s not easy for them. They feel a sense of fear or nervousness, but they do it anyway.”
Engardio graduated from Michigan State University in 1994. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and other publications and was an associate producer for the ABC newsmagazine “20/20.” He also consults as a media and communications strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Engardio says he doesn’t subscribe to any organized faiths, that “there’s definitely room for all kinds of religions. But he respects the faith in which he grew up but never joined.
“This country was founded on principles of freedom of religion and personal liberty, and those things are what divide us right now,” he said. “That’s why I made this film.”
“Knocking” will be shown at the third annual Flint Film Festival at 6 p.m. Friday and noon Saturday in the Flint Institute of Arts Theatre and noon Sunday in the FIA Art School Lecture Room and Fleckenstein Video Gallery. The festival runs Thursday through Sunday at the FIA, 1120 E. Kearsley St. Information: (810) 237-FILM, www.flintfilmfestival.com, www.knocking.org.