“Apostasy” stars British actors Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson and Jessica Baglow as a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses struggling to cope with adversity whilst maintaining their religious lifestyle. It’s directed by ex-Witness Daniel Kokotajlo and competed in the First Features Competition at the 2017 BFI London Film Festival.
The first thing to say about this film is that whilst it challenges our common sense understanding of human behaviour it doesn’t pick a side. If a committed Jehovah’s Witness watched this film they would likely find its exploration of their organisation to be unfair and inaccurate, but to mainstream secular viewers the portrayal of the group may seem rather kind.
This is intended in a sense as Kokotajlo didn’t try to make a film which denounced the Witnesses or their way of life. Rather, he wanted to articulate some of the problems that he has with their practices and explore scenarios which he’d considered whilst being part of the system.
In a Q&A after the screening, Kokotajlo explained that “Apostasy” considers the cognitive dissonance between the way that the Witnesses see the world and how an everyday person understands reality, forcing the audience to enter the protagonist’s perspective and attempt to comprehend why a family might ostracise their loved one in this life in order to save them in the next.
Kokotajlo has had 15 years to think about this film since leaving the Witnesses and that time has provided him with a balanced perspective on the group and their practices. The movie which has been born from this period of reflection is nothing short of fantastic and every decision works, whether it be the close-up camerawork which is intended to detach the characters from their backgrounds, (just as they are detached from the physical world and only think about ‘the new system’), or the way in which many characters demonstrate the duplicity of a religion which is simultaneously well-meaning whilst also being antagonistic to outsiders.
Overall, “Apostasy” is a thoughtful and surprisingly poignant film from an exciting director.