“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
(Hebrews Chapter Eleven, Verse One)
“Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil.”
(Isaiah Chapter One, Verse Sixteen)
“Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine; the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”
(Ezekiel Chapter 18, Verse Four)
Faith, repentance and sin loom large over the debut feature film from Daniel Kokotajlo “Apostasy”. Telling the story of a matriarchal family who are trapped inside a patriarchal order of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the North of England it is a film that leaves you gasping for air by the time the credits roll.
That’s not quite right.
Faith, repentance and sin loom large over this debut feature film from Daniel Kokotajlo, “Apostasy”, as he tells his own story as a young man growing up as Jehovah’s Witness in the North of England through the fictional lives of a family of three women. By the time the credits began to roll I was nearly in tears.
“Apostasy” is a film about faith.
“Apostasy” is a film about the concept of sin.
“Apostasy” is a film that asks questions about the notion of repentance and forgiveness.
“Apostasy” is a film that shines a light on a particular community of people of faith but that says something about power and coercion, family and love and the fragility of life and relationships.
Kokotajlo was himself raised as a Jehovah’s Witness so he is well placed to tell the story of that faith as experienced by its followers and he does this by placing us into the very heart of the faith and, more intimately, into the lives of Ivanna and her two daughters, Alex and Luisa. Ivanna (Siobhan Finnerman) is a true believer, any doubts she has about her faith are buried so deep that it would take a miner to dig them out. She rules the roost in the absence of her husband, a noticeable absence in a deeply patriarchal community, and demands the same level of obedience from her daughters; the fragile Alex (Molly Wright) and the more robust Luisa (Sacha Parkinson).
Much of what occurs within the meeting hall of the Church felt very familiar to me. I was raised as a Latter Day Saint (Mormon) and so hearing people call one another “Brother”, “Sister” and “Elder” was the language of my own Sunday experiences. God, Satan, sin and repentance were also concepts that I was familiar with from a very early age. What was very different for me was the harshness of the doctrine as presented by Kokotajlo…my own experience of Mormonism was one of kindess, love, charity and, most importantly, of the absolute sanctity of the family unit.
In the world of “Apostasy” however nothing is more important than obedience to God’s word.
Not your family.
Not your friends.
Not even, most distressingly and disconcertingly, your own life.
The air hangs heavy over the three women…like a dulling wine.
Kokotajlo expertly crafts a claustrophobia through the use of tight, restrictive spaces for sure but also through his use of the camera…it is in intimate proximity to every person and every object. His use of colour also wraps you in a heavy blanket that smothers you and drags you closer and closer to the people on the screen…browns, greys, blacks, deep blues and rusty reds. The effect of all of this is to make you feel present…like an eavesdropper. We are inside the bedrooms of the sisters, we are sitting by their sides in the Kingdom Hall, we are in the car with them. At times I found it difficult to breathe because I was worried I might alert the characters to my presence.
It is important to remember that this is not a documentary about those funny Jehovah’s Witnesses with their “kooky” beliefs and “wacky” world view. Instead this is a film that shows remarkable restraint when it comes to how the beliefs of the faithful are presented. They are laid out before us in the words of both the characters and the scriptures they use and it is left to us to determine what we make of them. Kokotajlo himself has left the faith behind and so it isn’t unreasonable to assume what he makes of his former beliefs…in this regard he has most in common with Luisa, the elder sister who is disfellowshipped following, well, a lapse in faith.
At times during the screening I attended there were derisory snorts and snide laughs from audience members when certain pieces of doctrine were being presented but I didn’t feel that way. I felt an enormous, and very real, sense of sadness. When someone has devoted the time and energy to a belief system this demanding and this omnipresent in their lives it is difficult to know how else they would react and act in any other way. For Ivanna in particular her faith, and the Church, have become the husband and father who is absent…the Church provides a moral compass for her life, provides structure and routine for her daughters and shelters them, she thinks, from the ills of the world around them. She is a victim of faith.
I’m not sure that any of this makes any sense…certainly it won’t if you haven’t already seen the film. I could have taken more time to write something that more closely resembles an actual review but I didn’t feel like doing that. I felt like I wanted to say something about how I felt after watching it.
I felt sad.
I felt impressed by the skill, craft and vision of Kokotajlo.
I felt tired…the sheer power of the performances and of certain scenes left me exhausted.
I felt upset.
I felt grateful…for my family and the knowledge I have that nothing is more important than them and that there isn’t anyone or anything who could have me put them anywhere other than at the forefront of every decision I make and every action I take.
That’s a lot of feeling.
Daniel Kokotajlo is, clearly, a gifted film-maker and I really cannot wait to see what he does next.