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Film Review: Apostasy

31 July 18 words: Natalie Mills

An unforgiving, documentary-esque portrayal of a Jehovah’s Witness family in crisis

Director: Dan Kokotajlo

Starring: Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson, Molly Wright, Robert Emms

Running time: 96 mins

How cheerful can you be if you’re waiting for Armageddon? In Apostasy, Dan Kokotajlo lays bare the dark side of a religion he was once part of. The film focuses on a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses – and how their beliefs (and lack of) affect their lives. It’s a cold wake-up call for anyone who thinks fondly of Watchtower and doorstep indoctrination. You experience, in horror and frustration, the very real consequences of a religion where God frowns on blood transfusions. And it’s done with such pin-sharp accuracy and skill that it’s entirely believable. No exaggeration is needed; it’s a setting worthy of a Louis Theroux documentary.

Apostasy is seen through the eyes of an all-female trio of characters, living somewhere in Greater Manchester. Mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) is superbly complex, caught between her unquestioning devotion to “The Truth” and her love for her two daughters. She is frightening in her absolute belief, answering, “That’s just your opinion” as a doctor warns her about putting her anaemic daughter’s life at risk.

Younger daughter Alex (Molly Wright) is full of wide-eyed faith, and deeply ashamed by the blood transfusion she had as a baby. She is growing up to be a model Jehovah’s Witness, sweetly explaining, "The cross is a pagan symbol, used by false religions" to her older sister’s baffled friends. Her vocalised inner monologues to Jehovah lend a dreamy element to the film’s grim realism. Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), confident and more skeptical, ignores her mother’s serious protestations of “How would Jesus feel?” and goes to college anyway. She commits the ultimate transgression by becoming pregnant by her Muslim boyfriend.

In the spectacularly joyless Kingdom Hall, Luisa is disfellowshipped by her congregation. Old ladies whisper about “fornication”, while her mother and sister are advised not to socialise with her. As someone who watches The Atheist Experience – which occasionally features ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses calling in, distraught from being shunned by their families – it’s difficult not to feel angry. "They will not be mourned, nor will they be gathered up or buried. They will become like manure on the surface of the ground”, is used as justification. It’s also telling that the congregation’s elders are comprised of self-righteous, patronising men in suits. They guilt-trip Ivanna with “If you told us she was falling away, maybe we could have helped”.

Far from being overly melodramatic or satirical, Apostasy shows events just as they could be

Alex’s loyalty to Jehovah, as opposed to Luisa who “always did as she pleased”, cements as new elder Steven (Robert Emms) appears on the scene. They stutter through a passionless courtship at Alex’s kitchen table, her mum keeping watch in the next room. We suffer a stifling party, featuring holier-than-thou conversation topics and a children’s’ enactment of a particularly unpleasant bible story. Alex desperately wants to belong and do her duty – possibly more so because of her guilt at taking blood – but it comes at a huge price.

The performances by all three women are extraordinary, but Finneran has an epic task. It is tragic watching Ivanna squash her love for her daughters into something compatible with her religious beliefs. Whether she’s ensuring they’re dressed modestly, or sobbing over a saccharine description of the afterlife, she’s fascinating to watch. "In a few hundred years, we probably won't even remember any of this" sounds even stranger in her likable, down-to-earth tones. Luisa also has mixed feelings, forced to choose between the support of her mother and her own integrity. Can she make herself believe again after she’s already lost her faith? Her heated exchanges with Ivanna will feel painfully familiar to anyone who’s had similar disagreements. “The governing body just make it up” pleads Luisa, trying to get through to a mother who trusts the elders completely.

Far from being overly melodramatic or satirical, Apostasy shows events just as they could be. Its muted palette and ugly interiors contrast with the brightly-coloured, utopian pictures of Watchtower. Dan Kokotajlo gives us a glimpse into a world he’s obviously very glad to have escaped, but he doesn’t exploit it. There are plenty of bizarre moments – such as a man who believes actual demons are tormenting him – but they’re never mocked. An important film for anyone questioning, or needing the strength to leave.

Apostasy is showing at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 2 August

Did you know? Daniel Kokotajlo, who was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness, shot Apostasy in just 21 days. During filming, his beard turned mostly grey, and he felt “a pressure to be as accurate and as honest as possible”.

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