It would be trite to say that Apostasy might be preaching to the converted. In fact, the opposite may be more correct. When writer/director, Daniel Kokotajlo, took part in the Q&A after the preview screening at Filmhouse he asked if there were any ‘ex-Witnesses’ in the audience. There were, indeed, very many.
In his introduction to the film, Kokotajlo explained that he was formerly a Jehovah’s Witness, and that his film had three motives: to present an engaging story; to respect the journey of those who have been through this experience, and also, to show respect to the community, who he described as ‘lovely people.’ It was the system, he said, that was wrong.
From thereon, we knew this would be a carefully nuanced piece of work. But, my word, it packed a heavy punch. Since I normally avoid spoiling a plot, in the case of this review I will write even less about it than usual, suffice it to say that this is a narrative tour-de-force. With so many in the audience to whom the story directly related, there was a genuine emotional response to the unfolding tragedy.
In brief: a mother and her two teenage daughters struggle with their faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The younger daughter, Alex (Molly Wright) has a life-threatening condition made even more vulnerable due to the strict ‘laws’ on blood transfusion. The older daughter, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) is threatened with ex-communication (‘dis-fellowshipped’ in JW-terms) due to an indiscretion. The mother, Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) is torn by the conflict of her faith and her desperation to stand by her daughters. She is constantly pulled between wanting to be a good Witness and a good mother.
Through facial close-ups, and scant script, all three female actors reveal the agony of the turmoil they are in. ‘Show-don’t-tell’ performed to perfection. This psychological tension underpins the powerful narrative. Preparing the actors to do what isn’t natural; to think what, to most people, doesn’t make sense was a challenge for the director, who spent four years writing the script. His attempt to get into the heads, and portray the logic – or the cognitive dissonance – of Jehovah’s Witnesses required immense objectivity.
As Filmhouse presenter, Lydia Beilby, pointed out in the Q&A, the strong female perspective is not often approached. We learn that it was Daniel Kokotajlo’s own experience of his mother becoming a Witness that influenced this point of view. But also, the contrast between the three women and the Elders – always men – gave a stark message of how controlling, patriarchal, and disturbing fundamentalism can be.
A key male character is Steven (Robert Emms) , a wishy-washy (to use Ivanna’s description of Catholicism) drip who is training to be an elder. His intervention in the family’s life (there is no father on the scene, for unspoken reasons) is, initially, vomit-inducing yet transpires to be catastrophically evil. With an answer for everything, mainly provided by a pick-and-mix approach to scripture, Steven epitomises the dangers of such a brainwashed sect.
Another subtle tactic in this aesthetically stark film is the use of intertitles quoting from the scriptures. This cleverly demonstrates the way a fundamentalist approach can appropriate and twist the words of the Bible to suit the needs of a creed. The notion that Christ came to bring division among families is a gross misreading of Luke 12; 49, but there it is, in plain writing on the screen, along with other out-of-context Biblical platitudes.
More blatant Biblical reference, however, comes in a party scene where, in a moment of quiet some very young children act out the tale of the Wisdom of Solomon. Two mothers arguing over ‘their’ baby; the kids providing a welcome touch of humour when one of the brats agrees to have the doll cut in half, while another, as Solomon, says dryly, “A true mother doesn’t want to see her baby die.” The family audience applauds… and then comes the devastating hammer-blow.
This isn’t shock just for the sake of it; what is portrayed in the film goes on all the time. One member of the audience, from Spain, said it could have been set in Madrid as easily as Manchester. This sect is a well-oiled machine, obsessed with the false hopes of Armageddon (which is a movable feast, it seems) and the ‘New System’ of eternal life, complete with preaching and propaganda, and some pretty nasty skeletons too.
In this way, the film contains a universal message, ready-made for the global market, and ripe for the internet age. The importance of getting this film into the mainstream, and not just seen among the ‘parochial’ captive audiences of ex-Witnesses, is vitally important. As Daniel Kokotajlo said at the end of the Q&A, there are “so many things that are fucked up: we need to continue to do something about it.” This film is a must-see.
For more on the programme at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, click here.