DANIEL KOKOTAJIO grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. Although he is no longer a Witness, nor a believer in ‘The Truth’, he has used his experience as the basis for his directorial ‘debut’ (admittedly he has previously made a couple of short films).
The result, Apostasy, is an accomplished piece of filmmaking that shines a light into the world of this religion that promises a future paradise on earth where everyone is equal. But only after Armageddon (it was meant to happen in 1975 but never quite materialised). Maybe President Trump and President Kim Jong-un will bring it about.
It is a brave, sensitive and revealing film. ‘I wanted to tell an honest story about the Witnesses,’ he said at the film’s viewing as part of the BFI London Film Festival.
Apostasy is all the better for Kokotajlo’s objectivity. Although he highlights the male domination of this religious order – no woman is allowed to ascend to the position of elder – and the cruel way witnesses are ostracised if they break from The Truth, he also refuses to portray the elders as ogres.
As a result, it is not a destructive job. Far from it. He shines light on a world few other than Witnesses know much about. It is as effective in its own quiet way as Louis Theroux’s more brash investigation into Scientology (My Scientology Movie, 2016).
To his credit, Apostasy, which feels at times like a documentary, does not focus on patriarchal domination. Instead, it centres on a mother (Ivanna) and her two teenage daughters, Alex and Luisa (the absence of a father goes unexplained) – all of whom are Witnesses and live in Oldham, Greater Manchester.
The daughters go around the local community proselytising, even learning to speak Urdu so they can engage with the Pakistani community. But an already broken family starts to fracture as Luisa, the eldest of the two daughters, becomes pregnant by a non-believer (Umar) whom she has met at college.
‘You have let college go to your head,’ says Ivanna (superbly played by Siobhan Finneran). ‘Bring him to meetings. You need to marry him.’
Luisa refuses to do so, resulting in her being unceremoniously disfellowshipped by the elders.
She moves out of the family home, only for the boyfriend to leave her. Ivana is barred from communicating with her although she struggles to adhere to this rule. Although Luisa makes an attempt at being welcomed back into the fold, the elders are unconvinced – ‘she understands The Truth but we’re not sure if it is in her heart.’
It makes for powerful viewing, especially as Ivanna (a fervent believer) struggles to deal with her daughter being ex-communicated. There is one powerful scene in the Kingdom Hall when Ivana, listening to a veiled verbal attack on her daughter, suddenly gets up and escapes to the toilet, only to be met with the sermon spewing out of a loudspeaker above her head. No escape from The Truth.
Apart from a gripping climax when Ivanna visits Luisa to see the baby, there is another big theme to the film which involves Alex and her ongoing issues with anaemia.
The film starts with a doctor telling Alex that if it had not been for a blood transfusion at birth (given, contrary to the teachings of Jehovah) she would have died.
Unlike Luisa, Alex radiates Jehovah’s love and is attracted to Steven, a fellow believer. It is ultimately heart-breaking fare although Kokotajlo (to his huge credit) refuses to opt for melodrama. Indeed, one of the beauties of the film is its under-stated nature. Pregnant pauses dominate. No bright colours. Just greys, lots of rain and a grubby Kingdom Hall, backing onto a busy A road. No sunshine. And not a glimpse of the promised paradise.
Apart from Finneran, Kokotajlo draws fine performances from both Sacha Parkinson (Luisa) and Molly Wright (Alex). ‘You are not the policemen of my life,’ Luisa says after yet another grilling from the elders. Her home is nothing more than a shell. The undermining of a young life which Parkinson (ex-Coronation Street’s Sian Powers ) conveys quite brilliantly.
Robert Emms (Steven) is also utterly believable as an individual who has devoted himself to Jehovah. Steven, it seems, has spent too much time up ladders contemplating life while window cleaning. The allure of a shiny paradise is too much for him to resist.
Apostasy is a thought provoking film. It is not without its warm moments (I loved the scene when Ivanna and Alex go round to a fellow witnesses’s home and Ivana ends up dancing – rather awkwardly – to pop music).
‘Did you wonder at any point whether you were doing the right thing in making the film?’ asked an audience member (an ex Witness).
‘Every day,’ answered Kokotajlo.
Thankfully, he was not dissuaded from finishing the project. Apostasy is subtle and all the more powerful for it.
Well worth watching when it is released by Curzon next year.
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Ivanna: Siobhan Finneran
Luisa: Sacha Parkinson
Alex: Molly Wright
Steven: Robert Emms
Umar: Aqib Khan
Director: Daniel Kokotajlo
Producers: Andrea Cornwell and Marcie MacLellan
Cinematographer: Adam Scarth