What must it be like to renunciate your religion? This topic is explored in Daniel Kokotajlo’s harrowing and tragic debut feature ‘Apostasy’, a film based on his own personal experience of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect in which he was brought up. The story is centered around a mother and her two daughters living in Manchester as dedicated Jehovahs Witnesses, and the cracks that start to appear in their perception of their religion when its strict rules and conventions lead to one of them being disfellowshipped.
Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), a devout Jehovah’s witness, who if not working distributes The Watchtower outside shopping centres, lives with her two daughters, committed Alex (Molly Wright) and her older sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson). Alex suffers from anaemia and is still ashamed of the fact that she received a blood transfusion when she was born, as she considers herself to be impure (Jehovah’s Witnesses consider blood transfusions to be a violation of God’s law). This information is relayed in the opening sequence during which Alex, after turning 18, signs a document stating that she refuses a blood transfusion even if it were a matter of life and death. She later flicks through a book titled “kids who died for Jehovah”, a significant but understated moment in the film, as she comes to grips with the fact that she could be the next child.
“Luisa is disfellowshipped from the community, and any social contact with her unless absolutely necessary is forbidden by the Elders”
The sisters spend their spare time learning Urdu as a way of being able to propagate their nontrinitarian beliefs, such as that Armageddon is imminent, to the local Muslim community when fulfilling their door-to-door duties. The disparity between the sisters in terms of commitment to their faith is made clear throughout the film; for example, Alex is shocked to learn that Luisa hasn’t told her friends from college that she is a Jehovah’s Witness, and when trying to explain what they believe in, including that Jesus did not die on a cross but on a wooden stake, is swiftly cut off with “they don’t want to know all that”. Signs of a rift in the family are also evident early on in the film, when Ivanna berates Luisa for missing meetings at their Kingdom Hall in order to attend an art class at college. The first act culminates with Luisa informing her family that she is pregnant with a boy from college, and more importantly, a non-Witness. After refusing to start taking him to meetings, Luisa is disfellowshipped from the community, and any social contact with her unless absolutely necessary is forbidden by the Elders.
In the time following Luisa’s departure from the community and the family home, the story focuses on Alex’ life, her encounter and subsequent relationship with a young Elder who has just joined their Kingdom Hall. The awkwardness of their relationship is perpetuated by Alex’ relentless shame surrounding her blood transfusion. When they first get to know each other, she comments “I don’t know if you’d like me if you really got to know me”, a remark she makes more to herself than to him. A tragic twist at the end of the second act means the camera then fixates on Ivanna and how she deals with the aftermath. Despite her lack of emotions, we are allowed glimpses into how she really feels. She begins to waver in her decision to put her faith above her family ties, as the responsibility she feels as a mother starts to come to the fore. In a particularly poignant scene, she rips up the magazine she is drawing on and sits there and cries, all alone. The film’s conclusion is cold and bleak; there is no catharsis, no turning point.
Kokotajlo’s muted colour scheme cleverly reflects the minimalist lifestyle of the Jehovahs witnesses, who refrain from celebrating Christmas, Easter and birthdays. The drabness of the family home is epitomised by dreary brownish hues drowning out the sunshine outside, pale walls and austere decorations. The tight close-ups used by cinematographer Adam Scarth allows us to see every speckle of emotionsiobhan: every doubt, every fear, every sadness.
“Siobhan Finneran, best known for her comedic work in the long-running ITV series Benidorm, shines as the staunch and oftentimes unlikeable matriarch”
The three lead performances are exceptional and each actress is mesmerising to watch. Molly Wright, who caught my attention in the BBC series ‘The A Word’ doesn’t speak much but doesn’t need to. Everything is conveyed in her eyes: her fear at signing a document that means no help will be given if a blood transfusion is necessary, and her sadness at her sister’s disfellowship and subsequent departure from the family home. Siobhan Finneran, best known for her comedic work in the long-running ITV series Benidorm, shines as the staunch and oftentimes unlikeable matriarch, who behind her emotionally vacant expression shows flickers of guilt, fear and worry. Sacha Parkinson excels at moving her character beyond the archetypical rebellious young adult by making her so multifaceted – at times she is swept up with sheer anger, other times she is sombre and underneath there lies a constant sense of loneliness. Of not being understood when she voices her opposition to her faith, of being left alone with a baby with no familial contact allowed due to her disfellowship.
It is not an easy film to watch. I was occasionally so frustrated at the inflexibility and intolerance of the Elders, leading the worship and study of the Witnesses, who preach about excluding those from the community who had apostatised, even if they were family and needed help, that I wanted to leave the cinema. Kokotajlo’s film is an honest, unflinching look at Jehovah’s Witnesses and the ways in which faith can be tested. More importantly, it explores the life-changing consequences that can result from both refusing to continue to follow your faith and from being disfellowed from your religion. A must-see.