Apostasy: The Human Cost Of Dogma

In one of the most powerful British debuts in recent memory, Daniel Kokotajlo delivers with ‘Apostasy’ a hard-hitting, rare look at Jehovah’s witnesses dogma, as well as the cruel sacrifices their organization can demand from its fellows.

Filmed in Greater Manchester, ‘Apostasy’ takes the viewer right into the everyday life of a family of devoted followers, a mother and her two young daughters, contrasting the individual stories of the teenagers, which represent the virtuous and the reprehensible sides in the witnesses’ beliefs, both leading to their respective, harrowing personal dramas. Alex, the youngest, has lived her life haunted by some sort of inferiority complex, as she needed a blood transfusion at birth. Blood being in their faith the holy equivalent of human soul, and the root of many controversies as something forbidden to tamper with, she’s spend most of her life trying to overcompensate for what she feels is a fundamental flaw within herself. She is praised as an exemplary witness for joining all sorts of activities, including learning Urdu, to try and expand the faith among Muslim communities. Suffering from anaemia, her health will be at odds with her beliefs.

Alex’s sister, Luisa, will increasingly question some of the principles she has to live under, growing reluctant to follow their guidance. When she gets pregnant from a non witness father, her fellowship is discontinued. As a wrongdoer, relatives and friends are obliged to keep any contact with her to a minimum, putting her family and particularly her mother in the tough dilemma of fighting her most natural of human instincts, that of protecting and supporting her offspring.

Writer and director Daniel Kokotajlo is a former Jehovah witness himself, so he knows well the world that is depicting and manages to convey its conflicts in a gripping way. His gaze is non judgemental of the characters, whom regardless of the decisions that circumstances push them to make, are never selfish. There are no heroes or villains. They all act having the benefit of their loved ones or their community in mind, but under the emotional or social blackmail of the rigid principles they are meant to obey. The director leaves the cruelty of the situation to reveal itself as it unfolds, offering a compelling exploration not only of the shortcomings of Jehovah witnesses’ beliefs, but of the enormous human cost that following blindly the moral guidelines of any religion or ideology, without taking into consideration particular circumstances, can entail.

His excellent directorial choices add to the strengths of the story. Although following a naturalistic approach, the use of Academy ratio further helps conveying the anxieties and impression of confinement the protagonist family is experiencing. The simple but very carefully framed scenes beautifully enhance its unadorned mise en scène, giving us an indication of the austerity with which they lead their lives. Quotes from the Jehovah’s Bible punctuate the film, serving as moments of reflection in between acts or preceding important scenes. But perhaps Kokotajlo’s most impressive quality, particularly for a first time filmmaker, is his confident direction of actors. He brings out excellently restrained performances from a uniformly brilliant cast led by Siobhan Finneran, whose face will be familiar for a large part of the audience from popular TV series such as ‘Downtown Abbey’, in the role of the mother. Her powerfully subdued manner packs the film’s strongest emotional punch.

‘Apostasy’ heralds the arrival of a very personal new authorial voice that joins the likes of Francis Lee or Clio Barnard, to name just a few, as inheritor of the best British realist tradition; leaving that rare and satisfactory feeling that arises with the discovery of a brand new talent whose future work you will be eagerly monitoring. ★★★★★

APOSTASY is released in UK cinemas on Friday, 27th July

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