Interview: Apostasy director ‘It was liberating to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses’

July 16, 2018 By Rachel Cooke | The Observer

Interview: Apostasy director ‘It was liberating to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses’

July 16, 2018

Daniel Kokotajlo was brought up in the Christian sect. Now his extraordinary debut film casts an acute eye on the religion he turned his back on.

Making a film is always, at almost any given moment, difficult-verging-on-the-impossible, and Daniel Kokotajlo’s first feature was no exception. His backers were expectant; his budget was miniature; far too many pages of the script over which he had laboured for so long needed to be filmed every single day. And just like any other tyro director, he brought with him all the usual doubts. Why on earth had he insisted on so many locations? What would it be like to give notes to his star, Siobhan Finneran? However, for Kokotajlo, whose quietly controlled screenplay is rooted in his upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness, there were other, deeper things going on, too. It took this gentle, softly spoken man from Tameside, in Manchester, 21 days to shoot his film, and in that time his beard turned, somewhat dramatically, from mostly brown to mostly grey. “I lost loads of hair, as well,” he says, placing a hand ruefully on his head. “When we started, I looked about my age, which is 37. By the time we’d finished, I was 10 years older.”

Every day brought with it the feeling of transgression. “Even before the shoot, this was a subject I was uncomfortable with,” he says. “As Witnesses, we were told to avoid literature that was critical of us. We were made to feel it was almost on the level of being satanic. When I first got hold of one of these books, not long after I left the religion, I was literally shaking with fear – and when I started working on this project, that fear came right back.” Perhaps, though, this anxiety was also useful. One of the more remarkable things about Apostasy – and there are many; it’s hard to imagine a more accomplished debut – is its even-handedness, the way it stirs in the audience sympathy for characters whose beliefs most of us might ordinarily struggle to understand. Kokotajlo nods. “I did feel a pressure to be as accurate and as honest as possible. I didn’t want people still in the religion to be able to say: this is just propaganda. I needed it to be right.” Are Witnesses likely to choose to see it? “That depends. They’ll be advised not to. But if they’re curious, they might. There are the rules, and then there’s what people actually do.”

Apostasy is set in Oldham, or a place very like it, and centres on a family of three: Ivanna (Finneran, best known for roles in Happy Valley and Downton Abbey, who is quite superb) and her teenage daughters, Alex (Molly Wright) and Luisa (Sacha Parkinson). Ivanna is a devout Witness; away from her job at the council, she spends her time handing out the Watchtower on the street, or at her local Kingdom Hall, listening to the elders preach about Armageddon, which is coming very soon and with it, paradise. Alex is also committed; though she suffers from a serious blood condition, she has told her doctor that she would not want a transfusion even if it were a matter of life and death (Witnesses believe that those who respect life as a gift from God do not try to sustain it by the taking of blood, a doctrine they have followed since 1945). Luisa, however, has begun to doubt, and will soon, having become pregnant by her college boyfriend, find herself shunned by her mother and the community. The film is about the three women’s faith, and all the ways in which it is tested. But it’s also, par excellence, about the meagre world they inhabit, a realm that is unnervingly quiet (no music or television), frequently joyless (the Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays, Easter or Christmas, regarding such feast days as pagan), and almost entirely controlled by men (the zealous elders, who rule the roost entirely down at the Kingdom Hall).

Siobhan Finneran and Molly Wright in Apostasy.
 Siobhan Finneran and Molly Wright in Apostasy. Photograph: Curzon

This is not to say these women are unhappy, precisely; that they feel they’re missing out. Ivanna and Alex, if not Luisa, think of Armageddon, after which the Witnesses will spend eternity in paradise on earth, and feel nothing but excitement, a sense of imminent grace and bliss – and while they may be taciturn with each other, they have pretty regular conversations with God. Did Kokotajlo worry about dramatising these conversations? Didn’t those financing his film (it was funded by iFeatures, which is supported by the BBC, the BFI and Creative England) quail at the prospect of a screenplay in which what Alex says to her doctor, and what she says to God, are given equal weight? He smiles (we’re in a Soho hotel which, metaphorically speaking, couldn’t be further from the things we are talking about). “It was hard to convince them what it would look like. But I also realised, and I think they did too, that I could never get across the mindset of the Witnesses, the cognitive dissonance between what they think and what other people think, in a traditional script. The audience needs to understand the weight of their beliefs, the spiritual pressure they’re under. Because that’s what motivates them.”

Apostasy will arrive in cinemas just before The Children Act, the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name in which a judge tries the case of a teenage boy who, for religious reasons, refuses the medical treatment that will save his life. Naturally, Kokotajlo has mixed feelings about this. “Why did it have to come out at the same time as ours?” he wails. He doesn’t, though, believe the two narratives have much in common: “It’s an outsider’s book,” he says. “When I read it, I found myself nit-picking. Ex-Witnesses always say: ‘Oh, that’s not quite right.’” What isn’t in doubt, however, is the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are still willing to put their lives in the balance by refusing to accept blood. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were founded by Charles Taze Russell in the US in the 1870s, and there are now around 8 million in 235 countries (in the UK, there are 130,000). A group advocating reform of the blood rules believes that in 2016, at a conservative estimate, the prohibition resulted in some 1,220 deaths worldwide; between 1961 and 2016, the same group suggests, more than 33,000 people may have died. “They’ve changed the rules now,” says Kokotajlo. “You are allowed to take various fractions of the component parts of blood. But if you’re in an emergency – a car crash say – that isn’t going to be possible, is it? Your life is still in danger.” He shakes his head. “No, it happens far more often than you realise.”

Kokotajlo studied textiles at Manchester Metropolitan University, after which he spent several years making a living from painting and hip-hop – and it was in this period, when he was sharing a house with friends, that he discovered film: “I had been looking into my Italian-Ukrainian heritage, which comes from my grandparents, so I was already into Fellini and Pasolini. But when I moved in with those guys, one of them was into British cinema. Until then, it had never crossed my mind that there was such a thing as British cinema outside the mainstream. Mike Leigh, Alan Clark, Anthony Asquith, Terence Rattigan, David Lean… That got me interested. I felt like maybe this was something I could do.”

At 27, he left Manchester for a screenwriting MA at Westminster University, a course he funded with his art and a series of bar jobs. Was it helpful? “It was in terms of contacts, moving out of Manchester, and life skills,” he says. “I guess I learned how to communicate with southerners. But then it was a case of: what do I do now?” Eventually, the answer came in the form of a short film called The Mess Hall of an Online Warrior, made for a few hundred quid. “It did quite well at festivals, and I was invited in by Vision Media – the then regional film council – who said they’d fund another one.” It also having done well at festivals, he began developing Apostasy in 2015; by November 2016, shooting was under way. Did he always know his first full-length film would be about the Witnesses? “No, no. no. I worked on a few scripts before it. Maybe I was scared of it. I didn’t want to upset my family.”

Kokotajlo is the oldest of three. His father “did the odd job here and there”; his mother, like Ivanna, worked for the council in housing. “I was eight when she converted,” he says. “She met this very nice old couple who talked to her about paradise and the fact that the end of the world was coming pretty soon, and all our problems would then be fixed. It was very appealing, especially to our family, growing up where we did.” What about his father? “He was not convertible. There’s a pressure, in the Witnesses, for men who convert to bring their wives in, but it doesn’t work the other way round; women can come to the church alone.” Nevertheless, life at home did change. “Our lives as Witnesses were hidden from him. He would get quite angry with my mum, with how long she was spending at the Hall and going out preaching. But we still stopped celebrating our birthdays and Christmas, and we [his siblings and his mother] went to the Hall three times a week for two or three hours.” He was required to witness, knocking on doors and pushing magazines on people, and as a teenager, was terrified of people seeing him walking around Dukinfield, in Tameside, in a suit. Did he miss out on stuff like TV and music? “To some degree. Because of my dad, we were less disconnected from the world than some Witnesses. But if I did, say, watch films that I wasn’t supposed to, I would soon feel guilty about it, and purge myself by giving away all my DVDs or destroying them.”

Did he truly believe? “Yes, though it came down to who was the speaker [at the Kingdom Hall] on the day. Some were better than others, and they could fill you with rapture. Generally, I was very excited because when I was in it, there was still a prophecy going round that people born before 1914 would see Armageddon and the new world. So that meant it was going to come soon – they were getting pretty old by that point. I held out and held out [against any doubts] because I was so excited about this. There were other Witnesses who were quite scared of Armageddon: God was going to remove the rest of the world, and only the Witnesses would be left, and it would be our job to dispose of the bodies as well. But I blocked that stuff out. I just focused on those glorious images – the brightly coloured illustrations they gave us of paradise where you’re hanging out with lions and tigers. I never thought about growing old. I always believed I would never get older than 21. They told us there was no need to worry about this life too much; that’s why you were discouraged from going to college, or even from thinking about it. The Witnesses would all get young again. It was like Peter Pan syndrome, and I’m still dealing with it.”

When did he start to doubt? “It was a very slow process. The first thing I noticed was that I didn’t feel comfortable with the way women were treated. It might have been a wedding ceremony: all the scriptures they were pulling out were about women needing to be capable wives and men being the head of the house; they were using lots of very disturbing phrases. Then I went to college, and that was the key, really. People would ask my opinion on something, and I would be scrambling round trying to find an answer in a text somewhere – because that’s what life as a Witness is like. It’s group thinking based on the interpretation of a text. I looked back at the meetings, and I began to see what was going on.”

What about the prophecies? Wasn’t he sceptical of their tendency to slip and slide? (The date for Armageddon is apt to change whenever the latest deadline passes.) “Well, it’s clever the way they do it. They say they misunderstood the text, but that God has shown them the right way. They now say, for instance, that they got mixed up over the word ‘generation’ – that it’s the current generation who will see Armageddon, so people are excited again because it will happen quite soon. When a dates passes, some people leave because they’re upset. But those who stay only get stronger. There was a big one in 1975, I think. People were selling their houses. Though I only read about it later. When we joined, they’d removed it [ie deleted it from the record] so we had no idea it had happened.”

Kokotajlo, who thinks of himself as an agnostic now, attended his last meeting at the Kingdom Hall when he was 22 or 23; his siblings have also since left the church. How does his mother feel about this? “I’m not sure. I still have a good relationship with her. For a long time afterwards, she would still ask me to come back to meetings; she still does, sometimes. But Witnesses just expect you to come back: it’s like northerners thinking you’re just going through a silly phase of living in the south.” He laughs. Is it still a part of him, though? Surely it must be. “It is, yes,” he says, softly. “I feel like I’ve dealt with it now, having made the film, but it is still a part of me. You’ve got these ideas and values in life. I’m compassionate. I do my best to listen to people. But it’s a tough one: is that the religion, or is that just how I am?” Does he miss the certainty of belief, or is it liberating to be free of it? “It was liberating when I first left. I remember when I first read Darwin. Wow, I thought. This makes so much more sense than the Bible. But then, when we joined the Witnesses, I felt the same way: there was this key to the universe, and everything was clear. There was an elitism in it. All these idiots around us, we thought: they don’t know. I used to feel quite smug, and maybe I’m still looking for that. Perhaps I want to be part of a cult-like group. When I first left, it was about music. Now it’s film.”

How does he feel about Apostasy’s imminent release? “Nervous, excited, proud.” His mother hasn’t seen it, and probably won’t. But at every festival at which it has been screened, he has been touched to see the turnout of supportive ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Some of it is really emotional,” he says. “There have been people who took blood and were then shunned. Even in London, there were people who had been shunned.” As for secular audiences, who will bring to the cinema their own prejudices and misconceptions, perhaps by spending time with Ivanna, they will come to see the world, albeit briefly, through her eyes. Certainly, this is his hope. The squat, bleak, redbrick Kingdom Hall where she worships in the film stands on a dual carriageway, a road that works quite brilliantly as a metaphor, the world zooming past while inside everyone inside sits quite still, waiting for its end. But for all her zealotry, Ivanna is human after all. Her love for her daughters might be horribly muddled, but it is still love, nevertheless.

Apostasy is in cinemas on 27 July. Daniel Kokotajlo will also be doing Q&As after select screenings of the film across the UK. See curzonartificialeye.com/apostasy and click on “where to watch” for details

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