by Charlotte Harrison
A personal film is a powerful film. That’s the case for Apostasy, the debut feature from director Daniel Kokotajilo. He was raised as a Jehvoah’s Witness, attending his last meeting during his early twenties; the Christian sect is the focus of his film, albeit on a micro scale. It focuses on a family of three – a mother, Ivanna, (Siobhan Finneran) and her daughters, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson ) and Alex (Molly Wright). When Alex commits a religious transgression her family are forced to shun them, leading each to reflect on the nature and meaning of God’s love.
The film has an overarching sense of restrained devastation and stifled frustration as it explores the true testing of faith. When Luisa is ostracised from their community, Ivanna and Alex are closely monitored to ensure they are following suit and doing the ‘right thing’. The ‘right thing’ in this case, according to the leaders of their religious sect, is to cease all contact with her. When Luisa is present they must not speak to her, they must not look at her even, to ensure they do not follow her on the wrong path. What is truly requires is the removal not of love, but of affection. Ivanna is not allowed to attend or assists her daughter, even when she is needed the most. Alex, who has looked up to her strong and confident older sister all of her life, must cut her out completely. No matter how much it hurts as the choice, in their eyes, is a simple one; embrace now and no immortal life, shun now and have forever.
The impact of this is enhanced, dramatically, by the fact that Alex always felt that her sister was the only person who truly understood her. Alex was born with a potentially fatal condition that affects her blood; when she was born the hospital gave her a blood transfusion to save her life – against the wishes of her mother and community. Due to their teachings it has always made her feel other, tainted, different and judged. Even though she and her mother have done everything to ensure that she will never again be treated against their will, it is something she fears greatly. An exceptionally timely plot point considering the August release of ‘The Children Act’ (starring Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci) about a high court Judge preceding over a case involving a teenager being forced to have a blood transfusion.
With Apostasy the choices the characters make are presented in an almost neutral, matter of fact, way. They, their faith and their decisions, are presented in a factual, black and white, clear-cut manner. There are no judgements upon them, it is left to the audience to judge and/or accept them. We bear witness to how their community functions within the larger community, how ostracised they are, how planned everything is and how everything has its corresponding piece of guidance. The film’s lens is respectful of this. It’s not satire, judgemental or critical. It’s the presentation of a world most of us know little about, told by someone who knows it incredibly well. As a result it’s critical to the point of scathing, but without telling us how to think and how to feel.
This is reinforced by the exceptional trio of lead performances. Finneran is the standout. She is simply incredible as the matriarch – restrained, forceful and stoic. She follows though what she is told with a degree of acceptance that seems practically cruel and cold-hearted. Yet there’s so much depth to her performance that those small crisis of faith, never a monumental or melodramatic one, seem fully understandable and all the more devastating.
The world of Apostasy is colourless and drab, suffocating and devastating, mesmerising and chilling. One of the best British films we’ve had in years.
Apostasy is out in cinemas now!