You wait for ages for a movie about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and then two come along at once. The Children’s Act, based on the novel by Ian McEwan and starring Emma Thompson, arrives in cinemas next month.
For the moment, we have Apostasy, the debut feature from writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo, and already one of the best-reviewed movies of 2018, hailed in Variety for its exceptional “visceral and philosophical intensity” and singled out by the Hollywood Reporter as “one of the year’s strongest British films.”
Apostasy opens with a consultation between a concerned doctor and her teenage patient. At 18, Alex (Molly Wright) is an adult and is determined to convey that she does not want to receive a blood transfusion, despite suffering from a potentially fatal blood condition.
Alex, in common with her devout mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) is a publisher – the name given to active proselytisers – in the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect. Together, mother and daughter hand out copies of Watchtower, attend their local Kingdom Hall, and anticipate the Apocalypse.
Alex is learning Urdu in order to spread the word more effectively around the Greater Manchester area. Her sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), however, has begun to doubt her faith, and when she becomes pregnant by her boyfriend at college, she is shunned by her mother and the wider community.
Luisa’s doubts have some parallels with Kokotajlo’s own life. The director, from Tameside in Manchester, was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith.
“I’m only in the smaller details of the film, really,” says Kokotajlo. “The world itself and the general feeling of what it’s like to be a Witness – that’s stuff that I’ve lived with and understand. The way they talk. The pace they talk at. The silence. All those elements are things that I’ve experienced. But that’s as far as it goes, really. The actual story itself is based on people I know and from stories I’ve heard from other Witnesses who have been through much tougher times and have tried to escape.”
Crises of faith
Kokotajlo’s film unfolds as a series of crises of faith. Even the steadfast Ivanna is tested.
“She is facing an impossible choice between her family in the here and now or the promise of seeing her other family in paradise,” explains Kokotajlo. “That’s representative of what a lot of Witnesses have to go through. Family members are forced to shun other family members. But they’re ultimately the ones who are left on their own.”
Kokotajlo was already a huge fan of screen veteran Siobhan Finneran from her work on Rita, Sue and Bob Too and Happy Valley. Casting the two newcomers Parkinson and Wright took a lot longer.
“Siobhan lives close to the hall in Oldham I used to go to,” says the director. “So she knows that world and had a lot of compassion for her character. I worked with casting director Michelle Smith who is based in Manchester, and who casts pretty much all northern films and a lot of TV that goes on there. We saw hundreds of people. It was very important to me that we cast working northern actors and show people what kind of film talent is up here. The thing about Manchester is that there is loads of talent but they tend to get snapped up by TV.”
The subject matter weighed heavily on Kokotajlo. Established in 1879 by Charles Taze Russell in Pennsylvania, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian, but not Protestant faith. They have their own translation of the Bible, the New World Translation, which emphasises several core beliefs. Witnesses hold that God, or Jehovah, is a singular being and therefore do not believe in the Trinity. They don’t celebrate Easter, Christmas or birthdays. In 1945, Witnesses introduced the controversial doctrine which holds that the Bible prohibits ingesting blood and that Christians should not accept blood transfusions. Meetings for worship are held at Kingdom Halls.
Knocking on doors
For much of his youth, Kokotajlo was actively promoting the sect, knocking on doors and handing out copies of the Watchtower. His own drift from the Witnesses was not nearly as wrenching as the abrupt ostracisation depicted in the film. Despite harbouring doubts, he continued to attend services until he finally moved away from his hometown.
“For me personally it was a slow process, I know a lot of ex-Witnesses who experienced it as an extreme thing. For me, it was different. I was careful about it. One of the biggest things that happened to me was going to college. Suddenly, people were asking for my opinion on things. That was a new concept for me as a Witness. At the Kingdom Hall, if you were asked questions, it was an opportunity to say what was already there in the Watchtower magazine. There was always an answer for everything. We were told to avoid anything that was critical of us. And there’s something very comforting in that, in the black-and-whiteness of everything. But those absolutes don’t really fit with the real world.”
“I have a good relationship with my close family,” he says. “Obviously, there was a natural distancing that went on between me and my extended family. We don’t share the same interests anymore. They are Witnesses. So it can sometimes be difficult to communicate honestly. But I’ve never dealt with the kind of treatment you see in the film.”
Apostasy has been rapturously received at festivals in Mumbai, London, Toronto, Bergamo and San Sebastián but has, unsurprisingly, sounded a particular resonance with those who have personal history with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In common with Ivanna in the film, Kokotajlo’s mother worked for the council, while his father did odd jobs as a handyman. Daniel was eight when his mother converted. The family remain close, despite his own apostasy.
“One of the aims of the film was to treat the Witnesses with a lot of respect,” says Kokotajlo. “Mainly because of my personal connection with the story and my own family. I have a lot of compassion for the people within the religion. It’s the rules that the organisation creates that I have an issue with. Not the people trying to navigate those rules. Whenever we’ve screened it, there’s always a significant number in the audience who are ex-Witnesses. And they really relate to what’s going on. Some of them are very angry.”
Kokotajlo, who is now 37, is a relative latecomer to cinema. He studied fine art at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he specialised in textiles. After graduation, he became a hip-hop artist. It was only after a friend introduced him to British cinema that he became interested in the medium.
“That was a revelation for me,” he laughs. “Because until then I hadn’t realised there was such a thing as British cinema. So I got into Anthony Asquith, Terence Rattigan, David Lean and then Nic Roeg and Ken Russell. And then I got into other filmmakers through my Ukrainian and Italian heritage. And I realised that this was something I could do and that it was a way to combine all the interests I had.”
Aged 27, he left Manchester for London. He sold paintings and worked part-time to fund his MA in screenwriting at Westminster University. His first short film, The Mess Hall of an Online Warrior, screened at SXSW in 2010. A second short, Myra, inspired by the Moors murderer, Myra Hindley, was longlisted for a Bafta. In 2015, Kokotajlo was named by Screen International among their Star of Tomorrow selections.
Apostasy, his first feature, was shot in 21 days through the iFeatures low-budget film-making scheme, with backing from Creative England, BBC Films, BFI and Oldgarth Media.
“I’ve been trying for a long time to get a feature film made,” says Kokotajlo. “And something about this project got people excited. They don’t really know much about the Witnesses. Which made some backers a bit nervous at first. But they came to see this is a subject that’s very close to me. The film forced me to look at my own life. In the end that was very helpful for me and I’m grateful for it.”
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