I was stunned by Daniel Kokotajlo’s amazing directorial debut, Apostasy. It perfectly captures a world, so insular and alien and yet right on our doorstep. The acting is exceptional; understated and believable. The cinematography is very well crafted and integrates with the theme and tone of the film. I left the cinema feeling emotionally drained and a lot more knowledgeable.
Apostasy explores the control and dislocation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Admittedly this isn’t a subject matter that would draw most people into the cinema. Most of us usually try to avoid Jehovah’s Witnesses and at best they are the subject of ridicule. But judging from this film and from the many ex-Witnesses who attended this preview screening, the ‘religion’ is nothing less than a severe, damaging cult whose members suffer enormous emotional anguish and subjugation. Apostasy‘s humane drama helps us understand and empathise with its victims.
Apostasy depicts mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), college-aged daughter Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and her eighteen-year-old younger sister Alex (Molly Wright), all Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ivanna is devoutly religious and has strictly brought up her two daughters to follow the faith. Now entering adulthood, both girls struggle in their own ways with the restrictions of the severe demands of their upbringing. And mother Ivanna is torn between the strictures of her faith and her love for her daughters.
Younger Alex is the more faithful and conscientious She worries over her imperfect faith and suffers an immense sense of guilt. At her birth, the NHS insisted on giving Alex a life-saving blood transfusion against the wishes of the Elders; she feels somehow contaminated and imperfect in the eyes of God.
By contrast, Luisa’s world has greatly expanded once she started college. She moves away from home, gets a non-JW boyfriend. Her narrow world-view is challenged and her perspectives are gradually shifting. Luisa has an independent character, she is artistic and intelligent and begins to make significant decisions for herself, which don’t always comply with the doctrines and ways of the Witnesses.
The film explores the emotional turmoils of both dissent and compliance, inflicted by the strictures of the religion and it’s Elders.
As the film progresses, Luisa’s ‘incorrect’ opinions and actions are looked on harshly. When Luisa stands up to the Elders they seem out of their depth and perhaps for this reason they want to make an example of her. She’s punished by ‘disfellowship’, where she is literally isolated from everyone except for the Elders who try to persuade her to acquiesce and behave ‘correctly’.
This disfellowship thread depicts a painful detachment and it’s often difficult to watch. It’s not just the impact the situation has on Luisa herself. The entire family suffers, including mother Ivana, cruelly isolated and lonely, her apparent complicity clearly enforced by subtle threats and emotional coercion.
The system of Elders is patriarchic; apparently, only men can rise to elevated positions within the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Interestingly, the family is all female.
Apostasy has a spare visual style. In the Q&A, director Kokotajlo observed that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t tend to use symbols – there is little ornamentation or religious art, and so instead we see a lot of blank, negative space. The medium shots are often composed of characters in the bottom half of the screen, with large empty space above their heads. This emphasises their smallness, their powerlessness, they seem crushed from above, but the emptiness also appears to suggests an absent, imaginary deity, and it questions the futility of their faith.
Cinematographer Adam Scarth decided on a novel 3:2 aspect ratio, inspired by the proportions of photography. Although this is slightly wider than 4:3 academy ratio it feels enclosing, particularly in the frequent close-ups. It’s interesting that both Apostasy and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed both elected to use narrow aspects for films depicting religious conformity.
The sense of alienation and detachment of the main characters is also expressed by the extremely shallow depth of field. The focus remains only on the characters and not the wider world; that wider world is kind of present, but not really.
The colour scheme has lots of soft greys and whites, drab and also somehow vacant. There are occasional fades to white where chapter headings of biblical verses offer an ironic commentary of the drama.
Another interesting and effective technique is the use of personal prayer as a spoken internal narrative. It’s a great device and gives insight into Alex and later Ivana’s feelings. Different from an internal monologue or voiceover, the prayers are one-way dialogues with an invisible God, and are anguished and honest. They are used frequently, particularly at the start to establish with the audience how Witnesses think, it helps us understand their faith.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Despite the emotional subject matter, they are muted and understated and this expresses a calm, restrictive sense of control. Kokotajlo said he had to repeatedly urge his actors tone down the emotional range of their performance to the point that they were concerned that it would come across as flat. However, this approach works exceptionally well: there were many ex-Witnesses in audience and all were impressed at how authentic this felt.
We get insight into their beliefs and customs, the belief in the imminent ‘new system’, a sort of afterlife here on earth, and the urgent and constant need to implore people to attend meetings to solve their problems or doubts.
Kokotajlo himself is an ex-Witness and this is clearly a very personal film. In the Q&A he repeated said that he made the film for ‘curious’ Jehovah’s Witnesses, so they might see the damage that their faith can inflict. He also made it to convey what it’s like to people who have little knowledge of the faith, and it’s certainly a subject that isn’t addressed in the media.
Although the film is strongly critical of the religion, he succeeds at showing respect for the Witnesses, empathising with how members could feel emotionally trapped and manipulated. Accordingly, Kokotajlo said he avoided more sensationalist topics such as recent scandals of child abuse cover-ups. Similarly, he said he worked hard not to ridicule the Witnesses; that would have been too easy, and would have weakened the film.
Nevertheless, the film has moments of levity and humour, albeit some of it uncomfortable. When I saw the film, I was amazed that perhaps a third of the audience were ex-Witnesses, as demonstrated by a show of hands at the preview screening. During that screening there was a lot of quiet laughter, apparently more than usual. Perhaps this particular audience was recognising truthful details; many of the audience remarked on the films accuracy during the subsequent Q&A.
It’s no surprise that this film was made without the blessing of the official Jehovah’s Witnesses, and this is made clear in the closing credits. The ‘Kingdom Hall’ used for filming, so evocatively situated next to a busy road representing the distanced real world, turns out to have been recently sold and so was available for filming. The interior was actually a converted Masonic Hall, ironically it was being used for blood donations just before filming began!
Apostasy is an exceptional film, particularly given that it’s a debut. It clearly comes from personal experience and depicts an insular world, but it’s very compelling and quietly emotional. The script, acting, cinematography and direction are excellent. It’s a compassionate, important film that examines and opens out its little-known subject matter and I’d strongly recommend it.