An audacious and personal debut feature about the prison of dogma

Savina Petkova on Daniel Kokotajlo’s ‘Apostasy’ (2017)

THROBBING, THUMPING, POUNDING, CHOPPING, SLAMMING — these are the sounds that dominate the audio field of the otherwise dead-silent Apostasy. The persistence of such noises recall the immediacy of Judgement Day: Jehovah is watching you. The film is Daniel Kokotajlo’s first full feature, a tragic story inspired by his own experience as a (denounced) Jehovah’s Witness. Known for their discipline and worldly separation, the congregation is portrayed as taciturn, emotionally detached, and voluntarily repressed. Almost mechanised in their social interactions, marriage policies, and rigid hierarchical structure (in which only men can progress), the community, as pictured in Apostasy, is achingly inhumane.

The film opens up with a prayer: we see (and hear) Alex (Molly Wright) begging Jehovah for forgiveness for her anaemic medical condition. In a world in which anemia is considered a defect to be repentant for (since it demands blood transfusions, forbidden within the Witnesses), Jehovah’s Truth is strong with the girl who fears the impossibility of salvation. The private act of prayer, sacramental in its nature, is what enables Alex and her mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) to speak their mind and verbalise their actual feelings, yet never to each other. Meanwhile, paralysing silence dominates the household as they both experience the predicament of their beloved Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) being disfellowshipped and shunned. The boundaries of inclusion and exclusion are, it seems, unbridgeable. Setting his film in the gloominess of his hometown Manchester, as well as hiring Northern actors, Kokotajlo doesn’t hide his preferences for the English North. When commenting on the casting, he has wholeheartedly confessed that he believes Northern talents are usually overlooked or appropriated by television. His case of Mancunian support is evident also in the playful manner that “I like your accent” becomes a suitable pick up line for a congregational couple.

An excruciating plunge into the hermetic life of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostasy doesn’t fail to be ruthless and bite to the bone. Parent-child relationships are conventions and exist only when favoured by Jehovah, and this is why the family is shattered when Louisa is marginalised. Neither her sister or her own mother dare to look at her, not to compromise their own position in front of their God. The camera looks down upon them, and yet everyone seems to be talking with their heads bowed down: may it be humility or humiliation? Such discipline of feelings evades crying, and witnessing a mother’s emotionless eyes which fail to acknowledge her daughter, it does leave us perplexed as if the trauma is ours to resolve.

And this is precisely the difficulty which Apostasy must face: how inclusive a film like that be, having such plot and such characters? The identification leap must become a jump here: we, as privileged, secular, global spectators, must run a triathlon to catch up with such desolate existence, which rests on the promise of salvation with the price of constant policing: “How is Jehovah going to feel about this?”. Visually, the unsaturated yellow-green palette combined with scarce mise-en-scene, white walls and clinically strong lightning convey the ban on excess: in clothing, culture, and symbolism. While the Witnesses initially appear de-personified beyond repair, the film gradually opens up a possibility of identification when tragic ruptures in the narrative dislocate the focus from one sister to the other, and then to their mother. Each of the three women is silently investigated by Adam Scarth’s haunting, anxiously symmetric and repetitive cinematographic decisions, to visually cry out visually their restlessness with this burden of faith. Needless to say, as a film which concerns itself with female perseverance in the weight of a male-dominated doctrine, Apostasy passes the Bechdel test.

Rather than engaging in all-too-easy bashing, Apostasy offers a more complex examination community’s values. While the broader public and slighted ex-Witnesses’ may expect a more condemning representation of the doctrine’s injustice, the film refuses simplified black or white treatment of ethics. Drawing on the taboo of blood transfusion even in life-threatening cases, Apostasy makes a point about the lived reality of the Witnesses. The sacredness of human life is a conventional ethical denominator, yet Kokotajlo shows the consequences of attributing a sacred status exclusively to Jehovah’s wishes. A renouncing of human life in such a way is unthinkable for the Western state of (bio)politics, still the characters remain silently obedient. Men, women, and children alike — all silent, petrified of sin, guided by an apocalyptic future in physical vicinity: thump, thump, thump.

Apostasy testifies to how eagerly people want to be saved; our deprived nature seeks to fill in the imperfections first with religion, then in secular times with ideology, and on a personal level — with love. In Daniel Kokotajlo’s audacious debut feature religion undoubtedly equals ideology, and the third option is not given.

Release: August 3, 2018

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.