Wisconsin Film Festival: “Witness Underground” pays tribute to Nuclear Gopher and the liberating music of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses

The unlikely pairing of Scott Homan’s rousing documentary and Johnny Zeller’s narrative short, “SCARS,” pulls the ramifications of dishonesty into focus.

The unlikely pairing of Scott Homan’s rousing documentary and Johnny Zeller’s narrative short, “SCARS,” pulls the ramifications of dishonesty into focus.

Witness Underground (2021) is largely set in the past, but its arrival is a timely one. Scott Homan’s documentary—screening virtually as part of the 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival—centers on a group of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who all played a role in developing Nuclear Gopher, a record label and community for indie-minded creatives. Eric Elvendahl, Cindy Elvendahl, James Zimmerman, and Chad Rhiger were among those Nuclear Gopher attracted. All of them would gain a level of notoriety for playing in various indie-punk bands in Minnesota, raising more than a few eyebrows among the Jehovah’s Witness community in the process. Ryan Sutter, the community’s founder and a hyper-involved musician, was the head of the operation. When Nuclear Gopher started garnering attention during its mid-’90s to early 2000s growth period, all of them were Jehovah’s Witnesses. None of them are now.

Homan meticulously tracks the arc of each central figure with remarkable clarity, as their journeys mirror one another. All of them start as upstanding Witnesses before becoming controversial figures as emergent creatives. Ultimately, they all make the extraordinarily difficult decision to upend their lives by excommunicating themselves from what they see (and Homan sees) as a cult. While the Elvendahls (wife and husband Cindy and Eric), Zimmerman, and Rhiger are granted considerable screen time, Sutter is Witness Underground’s charismatic anchor, mirroring the real-life dynamic central to Nuclear Gopher.

Sutter also gets the documentary’s most cathartic and heartrending moments. Homan grants his Darwin-aided, ecosystem-driven epiphany with rousing post-rock and lets the more emotionally resonant moments breathe. When Sutter leaves the JWs, he winds up facing down a run of exceptionally hard events: the abrupt dissolution of his marriage, being disowned by his father, and the unexpected loss of his brother, which leads to Sutter being demonstrably shunned at his funeral. During these scenes, the score is dialed down to an ambient hum or removed entirely, allowing the gravity of those moments to take hold. Here, Witness Underground sheds its playful aesthetics to underscore the crushing reality of the situation. It’s as startling as it is effective.

Witness Underground’s strongest ancillary point is its understanding and respect of music. Throughout the documentary, the most frequently heard songs are from the projects of its subjects. Roughly a dozen Nuclear Gopher-affiliated projects make their way onto the soundtrack, with the earlier works highlighted by Kloey—a band who would’ve slotted in neatly alongside the first wave of Riot Grrrl acts—and the expansive post-rock of Daytrip. When Witness Underground reveals that several of the film’s core subjects reunited to form (and later expand) HighTV, our understanding of the interior lives of this group makes the moment feel that much more significant. For the people of this film, music wasn’t just an outlet; it was a savior. Witness Underground’s respect for that level of influence strengthens its margins and helps elevate the film from a strong multipurpose study to an essential one.

Frequently searing and undeniably confrontational, Witness Underground also doubles as a paean to context, fitting neatly into a long tradition of Wisconsin Film Festival titles that act as subtle analogies for contemporary political discord. (See: Deerskin (WFF 2020)’s take on abuse of arbitrary power, Hail Satan? (WFF 2019)’s ode to challenging traditionalism, or Bugsy Malone (WFF 2012)’s winking depiction of maturity in authoritative figures, for example.) The willfully disingenuous tactics increasingly prevalent among Wisconsin’s extremist right wing sect and mirrored within the “foundational literature” central to the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses is unavoidable. While the pain of recognizing this parallel can’t quite compare with the traumatic ordeals that being a Jehovah’s Witness imparted on Witness Underground’s cast, there’s still a sense that the ongoing fight for a more accepting world is far from over.

A still from SCARS.

A still from SCARS.

Preceding Witness Underground in the Wisconsin Film Festival program is Jonny Zeller’s SCARS (2019), a short narrative film inspired by a Reddit prompt that is determined to interrogate how we view truth. While there’s room for nuanced comedy and drama, SCARS consistently struggles to hit those notes. The scant eighteen-minute running time doesn’t allow Zeller to lay the groundwork for a compelling character study, leaving the film with a fatal flaw. While it does eventually work its way to a cogent and even somewhat moving conclusion, the weight of the events fall flat, because the central characters are largely half-formed.

Despite the relative lack of strong character writing, Jeremy Shada—whose voice some may recognize as Finn from TV’s Adventure Time—delivers a compelling performance as Private Deets, a young man of privilege prone to hostility, especially when his entitlement is challenged. Deets is one of a small handful of new recruits of a national military that exempts “pures.” In the world of SCARS, every time a person lies, a scar appears somewhere on their body. When the lie is repeated, the scar reopens and worsens the resulting scab. Those who have achieved “purity” get to navigate life with unblemished skin.

Of course, this leads to a cheat via “slick,” which allows the wealthiest citizens to cover over their scars to appear pure. Why that isn’t construed as a lie is never explained, leaving one to wonder what constitutes a lie in Zeller’s world. Vocalization? It’s never made explicit. Slick does ultimately provide the film with one of its best moments in a “bikini body” ad that doubles as a funny, cutting introduction to the film’s core concepts. Shada’s Deets tries to skirt military duty by way of slick and is inevitably ousted. Turns out that scar-covering material is no match for military-grade equipment built to detect it.

While SCARS never finds stable footing, the plot solidifies about a quarter of the way into the film. After a quick adjustment period, Deets and his fellow new recruits discover that “Master Sergeant,” a man who has survived five tours without a scratch, has a massive scar along the length of his back. Zeller is quick to focus on this new mystery, leaving his characters to speculate at the origin of the scar, trusting their body language to round out their characters’ identities to scattershot results. The film concludes with the abrupt reveal of this particular lie. The mystery is resolved as quickly as it was introduced, raising questions about the nature of how we perceive honesty. Ultimately, even while feeling rushed, this finale sends SCARS off on a strong note but doesn’t totally absolve the film of its blemishes.

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