I watched Daniel Kokotajlo's debut feature, 'Apostasy', at an early evening showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre in front of a packed audience. Billed to include a Q and A session with the writer-director, it was only when the film ended that I realised I was sitting among a crowd of lapsed Jehovah's Witnesses, thereby explaining the large number of people who had chosen to sit in a darkened cinema on a rare sunny afternoon in Glasgow.
They were about to see their lives represented on film for the first time – and from the inside. Moving testimony at the film's end vouched for the film's veracity, as various people spoke of their experiences of membership in ways that echoed those of the film's protagonists, if less dramatically.
Kokotajlo was himself a Witness until his early 20s. It is an unexpected privilege to be offered an insight into a sect whose workings and meanings remain opaque and incomprehensible to most of us – and by such a subtle filmmaker. 'Apostasy' has tremendous emotional heft, carried in part by Kokotajlo's writing, which is both detached and deeply sympathetic. His quietly devastating screenplay is clearly rooted in his own upbringing as a Jehovah's Witness. The story he tells with such clarity is based on real knowledge of the culture of a faith that is almost totally invisible to outsiders.
Another of this year's films, 'The Children Act,' covers the same territory as Kokotajlo's film – the Jehovah's Witness veto on blood transfusions. Placed side by side with 'Apostasy', it looks just a little silly, despite a bravura leading performance from Emma Thompson. Thompson plays a high court judge who must decide whether a 17-year-old boy, raised as a Jehovah's Witness, should be allowed to reject a life-saving blood transfusion as he wishes. Richard Eyre's film, like Ian McEwan's source novel (adapted here by the author himself) deftly depicts the world of the law courts and its baleful deference, and McEwan is excellent at conveying the workings of the upper echelons of institutionalised authority.
Yet the film offers its audience absolutely no insight that might temper its total bafflement at the very idea of allowing a child to reject a life-saving medical intervention. Instead, the (questionably) saving power of music and poetry is offered up, and the central issue is used as a kind of hinge for the analysis of a failing marriage and an opportunity for some stylish sets depicting upper-middle-class domestic life.
In one excruciating scene we are treated to a guitar-playing Emma Thompson on a visit to the sick teenager in hospital: judge and patient perform 'Down by the Salley Gardens'; young Adam's mind is opened to the joys of Yeats, and he develops a crush on the Lady. The film then proceeds like a middlebrow play with little cinematic merit or subtlety, stretching credulity to the limit. 'Apostasy', in contrast, takes us beyond what is imaginable for most of us by arousing sympathy for characters whose beliefs we would normally struggle to understand, far less feel sympathy for.
Kokotajlo was eight when his mother converted. 'She met this nice old couple who talked to her about paradise and that the end of the world was coming soon, and then all our problems would be fixed. It was very appealing,' he explains. 'I always believed I would never get older than 21. They [the elders] told us there was no need to worry about this life too much. The Witnesses would all get young again.'
Doubt for Kokotajlo was a slow process: 'The first thing I noticed was that I didn't feel comfortable with the way women were treated… Then I went to college, and that was the key.' He didn't want his film to upset his mother who is still a member; nor did he want people still in the religion to say that it was just propaganda: 'I needed it to be right.' Shot in just 21 days in Oldham, each day brought with it a feeling of transgression, says the director whose beard changed from mostly brown to mostly grey by the end of filming.
The drama focuses on a family of three: Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran, best known for her TV roles in 'Happy Valley' and 'Downton Abbey') and her teenage daughters, 18-year-old Alex (Molly Wright) who is still at school and older sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson). The performances are superb, remarkable especially for their restraint and lucidity. Ivanna is devout and when not working as a local council employee (like Kokotajlo's mum) she hands out the Watchtower at street corners or listens to the male elders at her local Kingdom Hall preaching about armageddon and paradise.
Alex too is devout. She has a serious blood condition and has told her doctor that, even if it is a matter of life or death, she will refuse a blood transfusion, because life is a gift from God and not to be sustained by the taking of blood. She lives with a sense of shame and pollution: as a baby she received a transfusion.
Luisa, now at college, has begun to doubt. When she becomes pregnant by her unbeliever boyfriend, the community expels her, and Ivanna and Alex are forbidden from any contact with her beyond the most basic level – a cruel withdrawal of love and support done in the name of spiritual salvation. In the meantime, Alex is being courted by budding young elder-to-be Steve (creepily played by Robert Emms). She realises the match is a ploy by her mother and the church to stop her going the same way as her older sister. But her sense of responsibility is so powerful, that despite wanting to help her sister, this realisation just strengthens her commitment to Witness orthodoxy.
At a pivotal moment in the film, when tragedy has put even greater strain on Ivanna's relationship with her older daughter (and the audience is still reeling from the scarcely noticed tragic event – did it really happen?), the heavily pregnant Luisa sobs to her mother: 'Do you think it's right how they make you treat me?' Her mother sides with the Witnesses, thus going against all natural human instinct and further increasing her own isolation and loneliness. Keeping a tight focus on all three women, Kokotajlo refuses to resort to easy condemnation, while showing the dangers of indoctrination and fundamentalism.
One of the film's strengths lies in displaying just how circumscribed the Witnesses' world is – in its silence (no music, film or TV), its absence of any celebrations (no birthdays or Christmas) and the fact that it is almost entirely controlled by men. But given equal weight in 'Apostasy' is the fact that for the three women – at least for Ivanna and Alex – bliss at the prospect of armageddon and eternal paradise on earth trumps any daily bleakness. They feel special (superior, even) in their certain knowledge of paradise to come. They may be lonely – and a sense of Ivanna's loneliness pervades the film – but they have regular conversations with God.
Communication with God carries the same weight in the world of the film as any other conversation, whether in the office, Kingdom Hall or doctor's practice, and this is what motivates and feeds believers spiritually: 'I'm sorry Jehovah' are the first words spoken in 'Apostasy', setting the tone for an exploration of faith, grief and guilt that exposes wider themes of love, loss and unshakeable belief. The words are inside Alex's head, as she listens to her doctor telling her she needs a blood transfusion, and they are the first instance of Alex voicing her inner dialogue at key moments, offering insight into her emotions and into the faith's wider belief system.
Cinematographer Adam Scarth shoots mostly in close-up, matched by a claustrophobic aesthetic imbued with very little light. The women's faces, captured in direct, part-shadowed frames, convey most of the emotion. Luisa's simmering rage, tempered only by her desire not to upset her mother further, is painful to witness, as is Alex's gentle forbearance. Ivanna's anguish is captured in another key close up when undergoing her darkest moment, unaccompanied by a musical score or any other music in the film's drab world. Sound is another matter however, providing the film's funniest and most chilling moment when, at a prayer meeting, Ivanna cannot escape the elders' admonitions even in the lavatory. The church's PA system carries their voices right into the most intimate of spaces. God is everywhere.
Two other feature films this summer touched on related themes. 'The Miseducation of Cameron Post,' directed by Iranian-American film-maker Desiree Akhavan, documents the abusive conversion therapies practised on gay teenagers by zealous Christians at 'God’s Promise,' an early 1990s Montana rural retreat where youngsters are told there is no such thing as homosexuality, just the struggle with sin. The institutionalised nature of 'God's Promise' is beautifully captured, as is the ludicrous psychobabble of its 'de-gaying' processes.
'Cold War' is this summer's other must-see film that touches on fundamentalism – Stalinism, this time. Shot in crisply glowing black and white, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski ('Last Resort,' 'Ida'), it is a glorious love story, told through song, starting with peasant folk songs in post-war Poland, and crossing the Iron Curtain to Paris and Yugoslavia, and back again. A musical ode to Stalin before a huge banner of his face is the film's funniest moment, depicting the propaganda use of music in a fabulous send-up that shows the powerful role music can play in film.