Witness Underground, written and directed by Scott Homan, follows the life-changing experiences of a group of musicians, songwriters, and singers who were originally Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some left because of the associations and learnings they got from being exposed to rebellious music. Others were too intelligent in the long run to continue adhering to the severely strict doctrine of the church.
They left at great personal cost. Elders of the church warn that dipping too far into anything not church-related, to explore cultures outside of their religion, is to court disaster that could lead to disfellowshipping (the JW equivalent of excommunication for Catholics). A disfellowshipped person is worse than death because they are shunned by their JW family and friends and cut away from all JW support systems and community. The elders are right about this. Too much knowledge of the world will lead to leaving the church, as one realizes the level of control and deceit practiced to keep the members in line.
This is where the power of Witness Underground comes from; the interviews make it clear these former JW members still are traumatized. Ryan Sutter describes the devastating fallout of his apostasy. His wife left him without discussion, his father disowned him, and he was not invited to his brother’s funeral. The soul-scarring imprint of the church is so deep that the disfellowshipped identify as ex-Witnesses. They keep those negative bonds of attachment rather than entirely putting aside the religion to find a different way to characterize themselves. This amounts to a sort of non-secular PTSD.
The secret to their unintentional egress from the stranglehold of JW was to create a culture of their own. Together they built a space where they could fly their assorted freak flags while still feeling safe. The group also created their own punk label, Nuclear Gopher, and become early adopters of promoting their music through the internet.
“…the life-changing experiences of a group of musicians, songwriters, and singers who were originally Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Homan uses archival footage from the musicians’ extensively documented history to tell Witness Underground. The viewer is treated to home movies and self-produced music videos, of course with varying degrees of professionalism and production values. As one might expect, the early pieces are clumsy and amateurish, but they created some top-notch work as they grew and honed their skills. The music comes from the Nuclear Gopher artists: HighTV, Ryan Sutter, Kloey, Daytrip, Blueskys, Ghost Army, and The Lavone.
The filmmaker pulls the curtain back on the damage caused by being part of a doomsday cult. JW is a religion most are familiar with, but few know the full details. Despite the Watchtower flyers and Witnesses wanting to share their “truth,” there is still a shroud of secrecy around the religion. As an organized entity, it has only existed since the late 1800s, still new and fringe enough to be a cult.
Full disclosure: this reviewer was raised in the context of rural Freewill Baptist church in West Virginia. The environment wasn’t nearly as strict as something like JW, but not for lack of trying. The Freewill Baptists were too stupid and self-absorbed to reach anywhere near the level of organized discipline shown by the JW. Still, the consequences of defecting are similar.
Punk rock has always been the outsider sound of rebellion. Interestingly, had the JW elders been more familiar with the culture outside of their bubble, they’d have known this and dropped the hammer on anything of the sort. Instead, they were permissive to an extent, as long as the music wasn’t blatantly anti-JW. But once that fever sets into your bones, the music will drive you to seek the truth, change your context, and save your life. That’s why it exists. Witness Underground is jarring, heartbreaking, infuriating, artfully made, and most important.
"…pulls the curtain back on the damage caused by being part of a doomsday cult."