British filmmaker Daniel Kokotajilo discusses his astonishing debut feature Apostasy, an exploration of faith and family set in modern-day Manchester
The first thing I did before watching Apostasy, the debut feature from British filmmaker Daniel Kokotajilo, was Google its title; much like with Synecdoche, New York, I had absolutely no idea what the name of the film I was about to see meant. “The abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle” – as it turns out. This was the first of many lessons that Apostasy would teach me: the harrowing story of a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses – comprising a mother and her two teenage daughters – it offers extraordinary insight into the notoriously private religion most commonly associated with its practitioners’ refusal of medicine and evangelical, door-to-door methods of conversion.
So how does Kokotajilo know so much about the religion, and why did he choose it as the foundation for his first film? “I grew up as a Witness,” the self-taught writer/director tells me over the phone. “I stopped going to the hall (the Jehovah’s Witness place of worship) after university, when I was about 21. I always felt that it was an interesting community and that there was this strangeness to it all – the way that we had our own sort of language and syntax, and our own logic to the way the world worked; we were part of the world but then, in our minds, we thought that we were no part of it. These concepts were ones that I've always tried to apply to my work, I guess – in a more abstract way – but this film is me dealing with it directly. It was the first time in my years as a filmmaker that I felt comfortable enough to do so.”
Set in Manchester, where Kokotajilo himself grew up, the film confronts some of the most controversial Witness beliefs: namely their denial of blood transfusions, which would likely save the lives of themselves and their children, because “to mess with the body is the worst sin”, and their shunning of community members who have “disfellowshipped” (abandoned their faith). Both issues had long troubled Kokotajilo, he explains, and he wanted to explore what their effects would be like upon a family in the most truthful way possible. He achieves this, with a startling realism, through his three central characters, Ivanna (British television mainstay Siobhan Finneran), and her two children Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and Alex (Molly Wright) – each of whom faces their own struggles within the confines of their faith.
Ivanna is a cool, impenetrable woman, whose love for her daughters is obvious but most readily identifiable through her determination that they faithfully obey Jehovah’s laws – Witness believe that Armageddon is imminent and that devout souls will be reunited in paradise. For her youngest daughter, Alex, this could be difficult: she suffers from severe anemia and had an enforced blood transfusion when she was a baby (the doctors overruling the Witness elders’ wishes). But Alex’s faith is remarkably strong, and she attends meetings at the kingdom hall willingly, taking noticeable pleasure in her extra-curricular lessons in Urdu to enable her and Luisa to conduct door-to-doors among Manchester’s Muslim community. Luisa, on the other hand, is enjoying the freedom that being at sixth form college has granted her. She has non-Witness friends (whom Alex is shocked to discover she hasn’t told about her religion) and shuns meetings in favour of art classes – much to Ivanna’s disdain. When she reveals that she is pregnant and suffering doubts, the family must contend with the enforced separation her apostasy would warrant.
Kokotajilo approaches the film’s dramatic elements with extraordinary control – one that mirrors the cold detachment of the elders from the emotional responses some of the more extreme Witness laws elicit. And yet he doesn’t invite too harsh a judgement of his characters – instead shedding light on the religious indoctrination that has led them to make the decisions they do. “It was hard. It was a balancing act all the way through from the scripts, to the production and the edit,” he says, of achieving this. “I was always conscious of trying to portray the characters as fairly as possible. Occasionally I’d get notes from people asking me to make things stronger and more critical but I resisted that. I felt it was important to try and show it as honestly as possible.” This, he explains, is not only so that outsiders can better understand the inner workings of the Witness community, but also – interestingly – in the hope that Witnesses might be watching. “I thought that maybe if they saw their own lives on screen, articulated in a certain way, they might have some sort of objective perspective on their lives and start to question aspects of the belief system,” he says.
In order to extract the performances he needed from his talented cast, Kokotajilo spent a week before the 21-day shoot “sitting around [with them] and talking about the logic and the mindset of Witnesses and what was really going on in each scene.” This was particularly important, he says, because he had no other way of introducing them to the “closed off” lives of practising Witnesses. “I really needed to explain to them that, as a Witness, even though you might think or feel a certain way, the attitude of the organisation itself makes you act in a different way,” he explains. “That was quite difficult for the actors at times because they were having to do things that don’t quite make sense emotionally – the way you have to treat family members, for instance, can seem extremely distressing and disturbing to an outsider.”
Apostasy’s slow pace, and emotional and aesthetic restraint (the very neutral, brownish colour palette evokes the “simple and clinical” interiors of Witness homes and halls) could make for rather sedate viewing, but instead has the opposite effect entirely. As things take a tragic turn in the film’s final third, Kokotajilo’s pared-back approach packs more of a punch than any hysterical display of sadness could, and ultimately leaves you reeling. There is no doubt that the deeply personal nature of Kokotajilo’s debut offering – and the various hurdles he had to overcome to realise it – is at the heart of its success. “There was a real fear when I left [the faith],” he says. “I was aware of literature and other works that were critical of the Witnesses but I was scared of broaching the subject myself for a long time. It's only once I’d had some distance that I started to think for myself and got to a point where I was like, ‘Yeah okay, this is a part of my life and I have a right to use it in an artistic expression,’” he says with a modest earnestness. And does he still worry about what the response from the community might be? “Witnesses might say, ‘how dare he?’ or feel like I’ve betrayed them,” he replies candidly. “But all my work is like that: it’s close to the bone, and that’s what I feel makes an interesting story, or is worth telling.”
Apostasy is in select cinemas nationwide now.