Director: Daniel Kokotajlo
Cast: Siobhan Finneran, Molly Wright, Sacha Parkinson, Robert Emms
Religion is a much bigger part of our society than many people seem to realise. So much of our infrastructure, personally, socially, politically, in just about every aspect, is based on the teachings and interpretations of books that were written a very long time ago by people who may or may not have existed, featuring people/characters whose existence is also debatable. It’s a constant source of inspiration, for better or worse, for artists, writers, filmmakers and all kinds of creative people. In the case of Apostasy, writer/director Daniel Kokotajlo has taken a religion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) that was once his entire life, and poured his experiences into a film that is full of exposition on a religion that is notoriously private. But what is the end result, and what can audiences, whether connected to the religion or not, expect to be left with?
Set in Oldham, Greater Manchester (Manchester being where Kokotajlo himself was raised), Apostasy follows a small family of three as they navigate the realities of life whilst trying to stay true to their religion and their God, Jehovah. Ivanna (Finneran) is mother to two grown daughters, Alex (Wright) and Luisa (Parkinson). Their lives revolve around being Jehovah’s Witnesses and everything else is secondary, even each other. When Luisa gets herself into some trouble that goes against the rules, she is disfellowshipped and shunned by the congregation, including Ivanna and Alex, which is encouraged by the “Elders”. This is because they are forbidden to fraternise with those who do not believe in “The Truth”. Alex is constantly questioning whether she is doing the right thing in Jehovah’s eyes, and both Ivanna and Alex find it difficult to shun Luisa, but they do as they’ve always done, and they try to put Jehovah first over their own difficulties.
This film is a bit of a personal one for me, so much so that I was a bit unsure as to whether I wanted to see it at all. The first thirteen or fourteen years of my life were spent growing up within the JW religion, along with my five siblings, so I knew Apostasy would likely play a little close to home, and I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to be reminded of it. It was, in fact, much closer than I thought it would be due to its accuracy, and surprisingly more of an interesting reminisce than an emotional recollection. As a result, I can confirm that it is a pretty spot on depiction of life within the religion. There were one or two things that didn’t quite match my experience (we were told we were not allowed to say the word ‘cheers’, which one of the characters does a couple of times, and the protagonists’ general lifestyle was of the strictest sense), but they were only tiny details, and everyone’s experiences will differ slightly. Overall, it’s a starkly and often painfully truthful portrayal. Only someone who has experienced in depth the rules and regulations and day to day life of a Jehovah’s Witness could create such a true to life film, and it’s clear to see that Kokotajlo has put a lot of his own thought and experience into it, quite likely to great personal and emotional cost.
Kokotajlo explores some of the stricter rules of the religion, such as being forbidden to accept blood transfusions (Jehovah made you as you are and you cannot tamper with that) and being disfellowshipped for reasons that would seem to those outside of the faith as preposterous, and he does this by making Ivanna one of the stricter followers of the faith, and thus her daughters must firmly abide by the rules too. Ivanna does not seem to allow any form of popular entertainment in the house (the lack of a score makes this all the more apparent), and she seriously frowns on Luisa having to attend college, claiming none of it will matter once the “New System” is here (basically the JW version of paradise, where all non-believers will perish and Jehovah’s followers will live eternally on Earth as Jehovah originally intended, before Adam and Eve screwed it all up). Even the lighting, costumes and general colouring of shots in the women’s household are bleak and conformative, in a sense. It’s a necessary aesthetic to have, as it gives the audience a pretty unambiguous sense of how life can be.
Each actor does a fantastic job of their portrayals , so much so that I found myself relating aspects of their characters to people I know or once knew in connection with JWs. Finneran’s performance is understated but also betrays a raw emotional undercurrent within Ivanna, something that so many JWs experience: that conflict of feeling love for others, basically just being human, whilst trying to remain faithful to Jehovah. Both Wright and Parkinson are also fantastic, both representing actual troubles that JWs can face, particularly younger “sisters” (everyone in the faith is known as a brother or sister), so much so that it wouldn’t be surprising if people come away from the film feeling a little angry at the religion, which would be fair, in my opinion. Parkinson’s performance in particular gives audiences a real on-the-nose look at how tough it can be for youths within the organisation. The film isn’t necessarily there to belittle the faith, or advertise it, it’s just a snapshot of things that actually do occur, and the actors have very much taken that on board and helped Kokotajlo make something that, while it may spark debates, is very real.
I think many people who haven’t experienced the religion will see the film and wonder if it really is how it is portrayed onscreen. Seeing it as I am now, an outsider looking in, so much of it comes across as such fantasy. Personally, these days I’m a believer in science, though I’m happy to admit we don’t know everything that’s out there, so I wouldn’t like to discount things I don’t comprehend or can’t explain. However, religion, particularly JWs, seem to stretch things to such an extent that it seriously verges on the unbelievable. It’s at that point that they, like any other religion, encourage you to “have faith”. I’m sure it gets to a point where the word “faith” just loses all meaning, you could hear it just that many times in a day. But when does enough become enough? This is perhaps what Kokotajlo wants to leave you asking, and possibly not just about JWs, but with religion in general. Does it really get to a point where you’re going to let your faith and what is basically a desire for everlasting life, which is what is promised, overtake that which you can see before you, and your appreciation of the here and now? It would be so easy to get into this debate here and now, but I shall refrain. Kokotajlo has created something that I highly relate to and has encouraged conversation, which I appreciate, and he’s done it through a medium I and so many people can understand and in a wonderful yet subtle way. I would encourage anyone who has been a Jehovah’s Witness to see this film, and anyone who has had nothing to do with the faith, as it is a real eye-opener.