The film premieres on Video On Demand in the United States on June 5, 2018.
As devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, sisters Alex and Luisa and their mother, Ivanna, are united in The Truth. Alex looks up to her confident older sister, while striving to follow in Ivanna’s footsteps as a ‘good Witness’. But when Luisa starts to question the advice of the Elders, she makes a life-altering transgression that threatens to expel her from the congregation. Unless Ivanna and Alex can persuade her to return, they must shun her completely. This challenge becomes more painful when their family is faced with another heartbreaking test of faith.
Written and directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s Witness, the movie Apostasy, which premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival, delivers real insight into a cult at odds with a world that it vehemently opposes. At its heart, Apostasy deals with the universal themes of love, faith and the possibility of redemption.
Having grown up in the cult, Daniel Kokotajlo has a very personal connection to the story. “I was interested in what faith means to people, and why it still exists, its positives and negatives,” he says. “On a human level, I wanted to tell a story where characters were forced to look at their true nature and how this related to their faith.”
Given the sensitivity of the subject, Daniel makes clear that his intention is not to attack his own religious upbringing, “but to challenge both sides, including the secular view of faith.” The drama follows the family as they struggle between their cult and their deep-rooted bonds with each other.
Daniel Kokotajlo has known producer Marcie MacLellan since they attended film school together in London, England. They went on to make several short films together; this made it a natural decision to work together on Apostasy. “Even back in film school I recognised the quality of Daniel’s work and the authenticity he put into it, so that made it an easy choice for me to produce this film,” says Marcie. “In this story, I was particularly attracted to the way Dan portrayed his lead female characters. He created three powerful roles for strong and complex women struggling to find their place in their community and in their relationships with one another.”
The film was submitted to the iFeatures scheme, which challenges talented filmmakers throughout the UK to focus on developing a story in regions outside of London. Since Daniel had been born and raised in Manchester and had a strong story set in that area of the country, the project was a natural fit. After submitting an initial treatment based on Daniel’s upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness and the point when he left the faith, Apostasy was shortlisted and eventually secured funding to go into development.
Andrea Cornwell joined the team as a producer after reading an early draft of the script, because it was “beautiful and offered a lot of insight into a world that many people know little about”. She was particularly drawn to it because “there were techniques in the script, such as the prayers, where you really felt like you were going inside the head of somebody of faith. It was trying to tell a story that wasn’t just a straight drama, it was a film that was looking at the experience of being religious. It invited the outside world to understand what it might be like to be in that family”.
During the writing process, Daniel wanted to delve further into the hearts and minds of his characters. “I began writing the story in a diary form, from each character’s point of view, then I adapted that into the script. It helped me find the truth in characters and their inner conflicts.”
Throughout continued development, the team reached out to disfellowshipped witnesses, authors on the subject, and even ex-Elders. It became clear that Daniel’s authenticity and accuracy was well received and that he had a unique perspective that was worthy of the big screen. “We began to appreciate how little the outside world knew about this
community. And it became clear that millions of ex-Jehovah Witnesses needed to feel like their stories were heard.
This became the mission driving Apostasy forward,” states producer Marcie MacLellan. According to Andrea Cornwell, there was never any question that the film would be set in Manchester. “Dan was from Manchester. The script was set there, and the rhythm of the language is from there. We hope we’ve made a film that is very universal in the sense of family and story, but equally we wanted to have a very strong sense of place.”
As Apostasy is the story of a mother and her two daughters, it required three strong female leads. Daniel felt it was important to “cast northern actors who understood the setting” of a working-class city neighbourhood, close to his own upbringing. With the help of casting director Michelle Smith, Daniel sought actors who would bring the authenticity and naturalism of the roles to life.
For the sisters themselves, Alex and Luisa, “we wanted to find brilliant, talented actresses, but we also wanted to find actresses who weren’t as known as they hopefully will be after this film,” said Marcie MacLellan. “Daniel wanted people to buy into the world and the characters for who they are, versus the actors behind them.”
IVANNA/ Siobhan Finneran
Daniel had a clear idea of the distinctions of each character, and why each was important to the dynamic of the family. The character of Ivanna “needs her religion, it suppresses her rawer instincts. I just knew Siobhan Finneran could pull this off.” Daniel had Siobhan in mind from the outset, and the production was delighted when she accepted.
Having accepted the role based on the quality of the script, Siobhan said: “I admire someone who has an unmoving
faith. If people realise that and understand that about Ivanna they can be sympathetic about the situation she finds herself in.”
Siobhan’s career has spanned both drama and comedy, from her breakthrough role in the film Rita, Sue and Bob Too to a starring role in Happy Valley for television and an award-winning performance in On the Shore of the Wide World for stage. She brought that agility powerfully to the role of a mother who finds her faith requires to make heartbreaking choices about her children: “Ivanna’s choice is an impossible one,” says Daniel. “Faith can have that hold on you. It can force you into these positions where you have to act against your human instinct for the sake of something eternal. Ivanna is a tough, complex character, but Siobhan was able to give her real humanity and conjure up sympathy at the right time.”
LUISA/ Sacha Parkinson
“Luisa is the creative, impulsive one,” explains Daniel. “An artistic soul in conflict with her faith, she isn’t able to hold in her pain and makes rash choices because of her emotions. Her playful attitude is misconstrued as insincere by all those that constantly judge her.”
Sacha Parkinson, well known for her roles in Safe House, The Mill, Mr. Selfridge, A Boy Called Dad, My Mad Fat Diary, and as Sian in Coronation Street, was an ideal fit for the part of Luisa. “Sacha really seemed to understand Luisa’s conflict,” says Daniel. “In her performance, I could see she was using a bubbly, happy-go-lucky attitude as a sort of coping mechanism, but underneath I could sense Luisa’s struggle to shake off the mind control and the frustration.”
As the character breaking away from the faith while trying to maintain her relationship with her family, Sacha brought the conflicted figure of Luisa to life. She found her connection to her character to be a very powerful one: “in my last audition [for Apostasy], I remember coming out feeling so deflated because I cared about it so much. I’ve never really had that with a script,” she says.
“My character Luisa is definitely going to be the most relatable. She is not the focal point, but having her as the crux of the story makes it easier for people to delve into that world as an audience member. It is a difficult journey, because she really has believed,” added Sacha.
Alex is “the pensive, stoic type of younger sibling,” says Daniel. “Filled with religious shame after a neonatal blood transfusion, she’s eager to do right in God’s eyes. Alex has an innocence and vulnerability, but is also strong-willed. It was vital to the complexity of Alex’s character that the actor I was looking for didn’t appear too child-like. She’s eighteen but more reserved than dreamy; a loyal type.”
Molly Wright, known for her roles in The A Word and Our Girl for BBC television, brought a strongly naturalistic and austere interpretation to the character. Daniel was immediately impressed: “she seemed transfixed by faith. But she was also so natural and understated. It felt like she was completely authentic.”
“I thought it was amazing to have such a detailed and deep role, especially for an 18-year-old,” says Molly, “I love Alex because there are so many layers to her. There’s so much reasoning and love behind her actions and everything that she does.”
There was an undeniable chemistry when the actors playing the sisters first met. Molly says, “when I first met Sacha that connection was there already, so it wasn’t hard for me to be sisterly with her at all.”
THE LOOK OF APOSTASY
Filming took place in Oldham in Greater Manchester. The production designer John Ellis had done quite a bit of work in Manchester before, and says: “having met Daniel, I really wanted to do it because he seemed to have a very strong vision of the script and the direction.”
A lot of time and precision in the designing of sets and costumes was needed to draw an accurate picture of the
Jehovah’s Witness community. Together, John and Daniel successfully created an environment that was both highly
realistic and practical for filming.
Several locations were used during the filming of Apostasy but for the art department, the key locations were the family house and the Kingdom Hall. Because of the reclusive and highly particular nature of the Jehovah’s Witness community, finding a location for the Kingdom Hall presented a significant challenge. Fortunately, there was an old Kingdom Hall in Manchester that had recently been turned into a cafe, which was ideal for the exterior.
The interior of the Kingdom Hall was a different story. The space had to feel real for the actors coming into it so they could accept it as their world. To do so, it needed to meet the very specific requirements such as internal meeting rooms leading off a central hall, and a lack of external windows. It took a long search before location manager Mike Higson found a Masonic lodge that would be suitable. This is when John’s work began: “we spent three to four days, and of course a lot of planning before that, converting the interior of the Masonic lodge to the main hall, the meeting room and the foyer leading into the Kingdom Hall,” says John. “We had quite a lot of work to do there”. The final result was transformative and deemed authentic by background artists who had past experience as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In terms of costume, Jehovah’s Witnesses have quite strict guidelines that they have to abide by, both in terms of
modest dress, and also in presenting a smart image for street witnessing. Because Apostasy takes place over a course of twelve months, the creative team also had to take into account the changing seasons.
When costume designer Lance Milligan first met with Daniel to talk about Apostasy, “the key word for Dan in regards to costume was authenticity. He wanted to make sure that it looked real and believable.” The rules of the religion were of course important, but “it was also about getting that balance right of not creating stereotypes or clichés”, says Lance. It was important that the family did not look too prim or old fashioned, but were a believably contemporary family. As the character of Luisa starts to pull away from the doctrines of the faith, her costume also needed to reflect that interest in ‘worldly matters’, while still reflecting her desire to respect her family.
THE TONE OF APOSTASY
Daniel was determined that, “despite the unusual setting, it’s a film that should affect people on a gut level.” There is a heightened sense of realism to begin with that makes the journey even more unnerving. “I was keen to capture the honest and quiet nature of the world. I’ve tackled the use of prayer and the nature of God in a way that makes sense to me as a former Witness.”
According to seasoned actor, James Quinn, who plays Elder Brian: “The great thing about this story is that it feels very authentic and it gives you a window into this world of who these people are. It will resonate because I suspect it is a world most people don’t know the specifics of. They know people who stand at the station or knock on the doors but they don’t know much about the world because it is of course a secret world.”
Daniel adds: “I believe the culture of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is yet to be fully explored in fiction and I will be able to provide genuine, intriguing insight.”
ABOUT JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES
Given that Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the world’s fastest growing religion, experience the highest turnover, and have a following in the millions, it is surprising how little people know about it. Especially when you consider how familiar we all are with the name and sight of Jehovah’s Witnesses; handing out literature in busy city centres or knocking persistently at your door. For this reason, we think a critical discourse is long overdue.
To provide context for the film, it may be beneficial to understand more about the religion. Their beliefs are distinct from mainstream Christianity. They are directed by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group of elders in Warwick, New York, which establishes all doctrines based on its interpretations of the Bible, for which they prefer to use their own translation, The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. They believe that the destruction of the present world system at Armageddon is imminent, and that the establishment of God’s kingdom over the earth is the only solution for all problems faced by humanity.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are best known for their door-to-door preaching, distributing of literature and refusing military service and blood transfusions. They consider the use of the name Jehovah vital for proper worship. They reject the immortality of the soul and do not observe Christmas, Easter, birthdays or other holidays and customs they consider to have pagan origins incompatible with Christianity. They attend meetings in Kingdom Hall, versus sermons in a church, and commonly refer to their body of beliefs as “The Truth.”
Often outcast from non-believers, they consider secular society to be morally corrupt and under the influence of Satan, Congregational disciplinary actions include disfellowshipping, their term for formal expulsion and shunning.