Apostasy review: Nuanced insight into the lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses

Dir Daniel Kokotajlo, 95 mins, starring: Siobhan Finneran, Robert Emms, Sacha Parkinson, Steve Evets, James Quinn, Molly Wright

 

Apostasy - Trailer

Daniel Kokotajlo’s low-budget drama Apostasy gives audiences a revealing and very uncomfortable insight into the lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s the story of three women in a northern English town – a mother and two young adult daughters – whose ties to the group put severe pressure on their relationships with each other.

The younger daughter Alex (Molly Wright) is an anaemic who still feels a sense of shame about the fact that she received a blood transfusion as a young child. Without it, she would have died but the religious group to which she belongs regard such treatment as an “abuse” of the body. The older daughter, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), is beginning to question the belief system foisted on her. When she becomes pregnant after a relationship with a non-Witness, she is excluded from the group. The mother, Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), is such a firm believer that she is ready to put her faith above her ties with her daughters.

A former Jehovah’s Witness himself, Kokotajlo tells the story of this anguished family in a pared-down, non-sensationalist fashion. His shooting style, with its simple framing and use of natural light, is close to that of a documentary. He is not trying to sneer or make cheap points against the behaviour of the Elders, but the film still gives a devastating portrayal of an inflexible and intolerant organisation.

There are a few moments of levity along the way. We see the Witnesses learning Urdu so they can try to convert the local Pakistani community. The portrayal of a priggish young elder courting Alex has its comic side. Overall, though, this is a very bleak story in which you can’t help but feel an immense pity for the mother (and new grandmother), who gives so much for her faith and receives so little in return.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, we learn, don’t believe there is any such thing as “a soul”. (That is for “airy fairy” religions like the Catholics.) They don’t accept the symbol of the crucifix either. (They argue that Jesus died on a simple stake.) If you do fall out of favour with the group, the Elders will make it very hard for you to win back their trust. In the meantime, they will stop you from seeing your family.

One can easily imagine the same subject matter being dealt with in a confrontational documentary (similar to ones made about other cults.) By tackling his story as a drama, Kokotajlo brings a nuance and emotion to Apostasy that simply wouldn’t have been present if he had taken a more polemical approach. Finneran gives a haunting, deeply affecting performance as the mother losing her family and being driven towards solitude because of her beliefs. She is either too dogmatic or too powerless to do anything about it.

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