I have been advocating Gregorio Smith‘s Truth Be Told documentary about ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses since I first heard about it from a member of the production staff. So I was very excited when Gregorio emailed me with more information a few weeks ago. He even agreed to give me an interview.
If you’re looking forward to the documentary as much as I am and want to find out more about Truth Be Told, here’s a good place to start. If there are other questions you’d like me to ask Gregorio Smith, I will try to pass them along. (Just remember, he’s a really busy guy.)
Here’s a comment about the documentary from its creator that I thought was worth sharing. Especially in light of any criticism that may follow from the Society or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Per the official synopsis, TRUTH BE TOLD is not an indictment of religion but rather a retrospective. The purpose of the movie is to provide a comprehensive forum for anyone that has a story to share – to start a new conversation intended to heal, not hurt. And while the ultimate product may not be even-handed, it will be honest.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Director – Truth Be Told
I’m sure many of you were wondering if Gregorio had any personal experience as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, or if he was coming at this completely from the outside. I asked him some questions about his background, and he was very open in providing details.
The interview follows.
Q. I understand that the film is complete. How close are you to getting the documentary into theaters?
The public phase of Truth Be Told is just beginning. The documentary has been submitted to a number of national and international film festivals/markets. Festival screening dates/locations will be posted on the movie website once confirmed. And while there is no official release date (yet) there will be one-off private theatrical screenings in select cities starting with NYC in July.
Q. Will there be a DVD or a downloadable version of the documentary available in the future? If so, is there any chance of a commentary or other extras?
Absolutely. There is a considerable amount of content that did not make the current theatrical cut that we plan to resurrect for the home video and VOD markets. These extras will include (but are not limited to), director’s commentary, deleted scenes, interviews with production personnel, production art/media galleries, and a making-of featurette.
FYI – films typically become available on DVD six months after its theatrical release.
Hear that, guys? There will be extras, and hopefully, we’ll get a director’s commentary as well. I’d really like to hear about things going on behind the scenes of the film, so that’s very cool. Look out for the release date of the film so you can start the six month countdown to getting your own version at home!
Q. Any chance that Truth Be Told will make an appearance on TV, like Knocking?
Sure. It all comes down to distribution. And independent films are subject to the same market forces and trends as that of major motion picture releases. The distribution of a film generally takes 2-3 years to fully exploit all territories and markets so it can be some time before we’ll see Truth Be Told on (free) television.
Q. Were you able to interview any Jehovah’s Witnesses for the film? (Maybe to offer their side of the experiences of the ex-Witnesses featured, for instance.)
NOTE: Pay special attention to the answer, guys. It’s a doozey. Emphasis is mine in the following quote, not Gregorio’s.
We reached out to the entire Witness community during preproduction – active/inactive Witnesses, Bethelites, those ‘riding the D-train’ (disfellowshipped) etc.. Active witnesses represented about 1/3 of the several dozen candidates interviewed for the film.
Thing is, no active witness would agree to share their story on camera. Not one. Not even in silhouette with their voice altered. They all expressed concern (dread really) of considerable retaliation/blowback from their family and the organization if their participation in the documentary was found out. Then there were those who sat for the preliminary interview with no intention of appearing in the movie at all. They just needed to talk.
Wow. So it seems there were active Witnesses who had things to say, but who couldn’t bring themselves to appear on camera – even with their identity’s protected – because of fear. I have to say, the fact that no one wanted to talk on camera suprises me less than the fact that they wanted to talk, but couldn’t do it.
For those who doubt the power of disfellowshipping, what do you think about it now?
Q. Did you try to get an interview with any representatives from the Watchtower Society?
I contacted the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’s media relations department directly on 11/17/2011 at 3:17pm. I spoke with someone named Daniel and told him that I was a local filmmaker doing a documentary about growing up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion and that I needed to verify some information and had some additional questions for the organization.
After being put on hold for about 5 minutes Daniel returned, took my contact information, took all the information about the movie (title, website, content links etc.), then said that he would forward my questions to the appropriate department and that they would respond presently.
Haven’t heard a peep since 11/27/2011.
This one doesn’t surprise me, though I’m impressed that the attempt was made. The funny thing is that you’d think the Society would want the chance to counter any criticisms made during the interview, or to explain things with their own “spin” on it. In the end, I suppose they will explain themselves once the documentary comes out. Only they’ll be explaining them to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the literature where they can frame the discussion in their own way. Also, by not participating, they can label the film as an attack or an apostate diatribe.
Q. What sort of questions did you want to ask the Society’s representative?
Questions for Society was a mixed bag but mostly about disfellowshipping policy and the Bethel culture. Considering how they brandish their annual world ministry stats (peak witnesses, numbers of hours preached, number baptized etc.), I wanted to know how many witness were disfellowshipped that (fiscal) year. I can’t imagine they don’t track that.
Q. How many ex-Witnesses are featured in the film?
7 ex-Witnesses appear in the documentary. 6 males, 1 female.
Q. Were all of the ex-Witnesses from the same area, or were ex-Witnesses from other parts of the country interviewed as well?
One subject was raised in Detroit, another in the Dominican Republic. The rest are from NYC. I had planned to fly out to Oregon to interview Nate Quarry but the trip was scuttled at the last minute due to a scheduling conflict. Fortunately Nate’s travels included a stop in NY and we were able to do the interview here a few weeks later.
So the ex-Witnesses interviewed aren’t all from the same neck of the woods. Good. I’d like to see as many different perspectives as possible.
Q. I understand that your mother was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Is she still a Witness? What about your father and other family members?
My mother is still a witness. My father passed away years ago. Most of my siblings harbor a healthy and consistent aversion towards all religions. I do, however, have one sibling that professes to be a witness but is a dyed-in-the-wool hypocrite – the situationally-devout type that engages in behavior unbecoming of a christian (let alone a witness) yet never misses an opportunity to sermonize about the evils of celebrating birthdays and holidays.
Q. Do you still have any contact with your family, or have you been shunned like many former Witnesses?
Its been some time since I have spoken with my mother. I use the term ‘mother’ specifically because she hasn’t been a ‘mom’ in decades.
Just to be clear, I love and respect my mother. Unfortunately there is a tragic sense of martyrdom/self-determination amongst the aging witness parent population and I believe that they view estrangement and/or the active shunning of their non-witness children/grandchildren as a test of their devotion to Jehovah.
“He that has greater affection for father or mother than for me is not worthy of me; and he that has greater affection for son or daughter than for me is not worthy of me.”
In fairness, it has to be pretty distressing for these people to consider the possibility that they failed as parents. Armageddon/paradise must be a pretty attractive reward to justify a lifetime of sacrifice, regret, and unconditional submission to theocratic order.
I’m cool with all my siblings (save for the one). I was never baptized so I was never disfellowshipped (so no official shunning).
When I was about 12 or so I told my mother I wanted to get baptized – mostly because all the other youths in my Kingdom Hall were stampeding down that path. I was an honor student, a talented artist, and first chair saxophone, yet spiritual pursuits were the ONLY way to get any form of attention or praise from my mother and other congregation members.
Puberty kicked in as did a formative sense of rebellion and I soon had no interest whatsoever in a spiritual career. I was beaten several times for refusing to participate in weekly baptism-related bible studies. Toughed it out for several more years then stopped attending meetings altogether around 16.
Like me and many of you, Gregorio has not been officially disfellowshipped (love the term “riding the D-train” for “disfellowshipping” that he used earlier). Wonder if that will hold up or if he’ll get a letter in the mail when the film comes out, if not before?
I have heard from others that many older Witnesses seem to feel abandoned by the younger generation. That may not be quite what Gregorio meant, but some claim the young ones are leaving in great numbers. I wonder if that is true? Do you guys have any thoughts on that?
I would like to mention that I do have a tiny fleck of sympathy for Witnesses in the position of having to shun their own family members. I acknowledge that they are in something of a bind, really. I have not seen much criticism leveled against them in congregations, however, just sympathy. And they have other Witnesses to lean on. Ex-Witnesses…not so much. So my sympathy only goes so far.
Q. Is your family aware of the documentary? How do they feel about it?
Most of my siblings helped with the production, including an older brother who is interviewed in the film. I also have non-jdub relatives who appear as extras. So on balance the family has been extremely supportive.
Not sure if my mother knows about the documentary (or that I’m a filmmaker for that matter).
I have an aunt that’s a super J-dub – a lifelong regular pioneer. She won’t receive it too well. And I fear that once she finds out about it I will no longer be her nephew…just a faceless apostate.
I think it’s really cool that some of Gregorio’s family got involved. That suggests they’re willing to stand up to the Society, which we have to respect. Is it just me, or does the idea of cutting someone off because they disagree with your religious views seem a bit…unhealthy? Especially when that someone is your child, your nephew, or a sibling? Gregorio hasn’t been officially disfellowshipped, but it sounds like his own mother barely knows him.
I maintain the view that I put out there years ago: being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not a happy or healthy place to be.
Q. What are your current religious views?
I don’t have any particular religious views. Not in the parochial sense anyway. And that incessant saccharin refrain of ‘I’m not religious… I’m spiritual’ is at once lazy and boring.
My religion – the belief system that I am bound to is simple: Be moral. Work hard. No excuses.
And if there is to be an elevated and healthy discussion about religion people should take a more layered and fundamental approach – beginning with the definition what religion actually is (the etymology of the word). If this cannot be determined then the entire conversation is in crisis.
Q. Any comments to make on Knocking?
Did not see Knocking so I can’t comment on it. I am curious though as to whether or not the film touches on the organization’s (purported) zero-tolerance policy toward homosexuality (the director of Knocking is an openly gay former witness). I also wonder if the society would have granted him the access/information that they did had they been aware of his sexual-orientation.
That’s a good question. I don’t remember hearing that Knocking’s director is gay. (I may have just forgot about it.) I don’t remember anything in the film that mentions the Society’s treatment of homosexuals. That might be a worthwhile documentary on its own. FYI,the link to Knocking, seen in Gregorio’s answer above, is one that I added. He did not include it.
Q. I know this doesn’t relate directly to your film, but if you’re familiar with the Society’s new DVD (the one featuring Sparlock the Warrior Wizard) do you have any thoughts or impressions you’d like to share? Many people who saw it found it disturbing.
Saw the Sparlock video online before the society put the kibosh on it. It took me back to a day in my JW youth when an elder admonished me not to play with Transformers since, per the bible, ‘Satan was the first Transformer’ (2 Corinthians 11:14.) He and his wife advised me to stop playing with Transformer toys immediately and that throwing away my collection would be what Jehovah wants.
I remember they both had the same exact look and tone of self-righteous condemnation, intimidation and manipulation as the mother in the Sparlock video. And I was equally impressed and disturbed by how the filmmakers were able to accurately capture that singular aspect of pious bullying in an animated character. It also proves that the society has a pattern, policy and a script to demonize anything that kids might find enjoyable. What worked 25 years ago is still enlisted today.
Its an insidious form of child abuse.
CODA – That elder and his wife never had kids. And I still have my Transformers collection (including an Optimus Prime in the original box).
I say, “Cheers for Optimus Prime!” Please note that I added the links in Gregorio’s comments.
Q. Is there anything you’d like to say about the Candace Conti pedophile case?
Its a milestone decision and I suspect just the tip of the iceberg. I hope it emboldens other people to come forward with stories of abuses suffered within the organization (physical, psychological, intellectual, spiritual, sexual etc.).
That said, I don’t believe that the $27 million judgement signifies the imminent demise of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. And all the chatter around the case is making it difficult to track and validate new developments (ie the supposed 2-yr freezing of the Society’s real estate holdings).
Yeah, I don’t think the Society is going anywhere for a long time. I’m still waiting to see if there’s anything really happening with its holdings if that’s just a rumor based on the court documents. But it doesn’t sound like it works that way many people thought it did.
Q. Anything else you’d like to share with us about Truth Be Told or yourself?
Truth Be Told offers an honest glimpse into the culture of growing up in the Jehovah’s Witness religion. The film is immersive, informational, expository and controversial. It will trigger both emotional and rational responses.
Those that were hoping for a ‘Michael Moore’ type movie should consider that a film does not have to be sensationalized to be critical. I’m a filmmaker, not an activist and at the end of the day good art needs to be moral.
Lastly, there is no rule that requires documentaries to present ‘both sides of the story’. And after 100+ years of Watchtower dogma, propaganda and administrations we respectfully submit that Truth Be Told is the other side of the story.
We’re extremely proud of the documentary and we look forward to sharing it with a global audience.
I should think so, Gregorio. I would love to do what you have done and I’m sure lots of other ex-Witnesses feel the same way. Good luck. And please keep us posted! Personally, I think a less sensationalized film is likely to be more honest.
So what did you guys think out there? Share your thoughts with Gregorio. Or even better, help spread the word about Truth Be Told.