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Apostasy: An interview with director Daniel Kokotajlo

August 12, 2018

Film + EntertainmentInterview | by Candid Magazine

Apostasy is the debut feature film by director Daniel Kokotajlo about a Jehovah’s Witness family shattered to pieces in the name of overzealous faith. An ex-Witness himself, Kokatijilo was inspired by his own, as well others, personal journeys of extrication; conjuring up a narrative where a fanatically devout mother Ivana (Siobhan Finneran) has her faith irrevocably tested when her eldest daughter Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) falls pregnant to a boy outside the religion and her youngest Alex (Molly Wright) refusing a blood transfusion that could save her life.

When we sat down with Kokotajlo last month, I revealed to him about an old friend of mine who was a Jehovah’s Witness and was extradited for being gay. It was his own mum who instead of dealing with her son directly, alerted the elders (the sect’s version of ordained ministers) to his coming out. The elders then proceeded to completely ostracise him from the religion and his social group and further suggested he leave his family home all together. I confessed to Kokotajlo that I was perplexed by their cruel practices but after seeing Apostasy, it all made total sense.

Kokotajlo is a likelable, relaxed and contemplative figure, answering each question attentively and with great detail; thoroughly intrigued by my friend’s story, providing him with yet another example of how the religion mistreats people. However with Apostasy he isn’t so much condemning, but more compassionate, giving an authentic portrayal of this family’s struggle by giving each member a balanced view, as well as showing the bigger picture of the difficulty for followers to adhere to strict religious dogma which contradicts natural human instinct.

Apostasy Candid Magazine
Siobhan Finneran in ‘Apostasy’.

Hello Daniel, Thank you for the interview. Congratulations on your exceptional first feature. When I first saw it at the London Film Festival last year, at the Q +A afterwards I noticed quite a few ex- Jehovah Witness in attendance. Has this been the case with most screenings?

Yes! A lot of the screenings….probably every single one of them. That has been a great support for me. It’s great to see people coming up to me and tell me how they felt watching the film and how the film was very cathartic for them. And also meeting people with similar experience at screenings from all around the world. It was quite difficult for me to go back to this, I’ve been out of the religion for a long time. I felt like I dealt with it and didn’t really want to deal with it anymore. Then talking to people, I realised there was a story there that I needed to tell. So, going back to it when I did, felt like I was dealing with it in a more mature way. It was definitely a significant pressure on me to get it right. To portray it in an honest, even-handed way. I had in my mind that most of the audience would be secular, but it was also important to me that people within the religion were not overly offended by it.

How much of the film is based on real-life?

Little details are based on my own life and stuff I’ve seen happen to people. The situations are based on my own observations. I did quite a lot of research, spoke to quite a few ex-witnesses who’ve been through things like that. Personally, I’ve not been through a harsh excommunication but there are thousands of ex-witnesses who have and are still struggling to re-build their lives……And also there is a question within the film, which is fictional: Family Vs Faith. To what extent would people go to for what they believe in? That was the real question behind it all. You are looking at three characters; what does each one truly believe in? how far would they go for it? That was the essence of it…

With the film dragging up your past and you are having to do all these interviews. How are you finding it all?

I guess I try to be careful about what I say. I think Witnesses at the core of it, are kind hearted people. I love my family who are still in it. That’s what I hope comes across in my story. I have a lot compassion for the people but it’s the organisation that I have issues with it… But that’s what the films about, how these people navigate through these problems imposed by the religion and do these problems need to be there in the first place.

Do you feel anything positive about the religion now?

I am perfectly fine with the religion. It runs smoothly as long as everyone cooperates. But that’s the problem, it’s all ok if the followers remain uneducated about the outside world. The rules become unfair once someone starts to express themselves….also the issue around blood transfusion and the way they deal ex-members, those areas that I think need reform.

With films such as these that touch on religious and spiritual themes, how easy is it to get it off the ground financially?

It was developed and made for a scheme called IFeatures for first time film makers. So in that regard, I had support. It was a competitive scheme and I had to apply and then you are down to fifteen, then eight, then five and then they gave the money to the final three projects. It was like trying to get through to boot camp. It was really difficult. It was like you had to put on a show for each pitch meeting and bring something new to the table each time. Saying that, they were very supportive and excited with the story and I think that was because of my personal connection with it.

I was trying out some very crazy things in the script. The first document I submitted to them was like a prayer, where I had Alex talk to God all the way through the film and I thought they were going to say “what is this nonsense?”, but instead they were intrigued and saw the potential in adapting it into a script.

Apostasy Candid Magazine
Molly Wright in ‘Apostasy’.

All three leads were remarkable especially Siobhan Finneran, she gives a mind-blowing performance. I loved how you saw the struggle within her, her innate maternal instincts come head to head with religious dogma. Can you tell us about your casting decision?

Siobhan Finneran is a great actress. I loved her since the very first thing she did which was Rita, Sue and Bob Too, the Alan Clarke film. I felt like perhaps Ivana’s life before becoming a witness was a bit like Rita. She was promiscuous and off the rails and then she found Jehovah and that sort of brought order and control into her life. But then it gets to the point where her faith controls her completely and starts to take over her natural instincts.

Siobhan is from Oldham as well, where the story set. She told me she drove past the Kingdom Hall every day when taking her kids to school. She is so connected to the area and because of that she was so truthful to the character, it made so much sense for me for her to play that role. She understood the character immediately, what she was going through. Such an enormous role, dealing with so many issues but in a very quiet and internal way. I think Siobhan got that across brilliantly.

You mentioned that the film started off as internal prayer by the youngest daughter Alex. We encounter this internal dialogue throughout the film. It’s very effective in showing view point of a Witness. Where did the idea come from?

Well I had a false start with the script. Where it wasn’t coming across what these people were really thinking and feeling… I could talk quite easily about stuff on a logical level but on page it wasn’t coming through. Then I decided to start it all again and had it that Alex is having an internal conversation with God so you can understand how she is feeling about everything. So that opened up it lot for me, that I could adapt it into the script and that way it would explain things to the viewer. Then I realized, the beginning of the film if it started with a prayer it would immerse the viewer into the logic and thinking of a Witness. Also, to show how Witnesses are conversational with God. They are encouraged to talk to God. They are articulating in a religious context, they are free to talk to God about anything and whenever they want to.

For the oldest daughter, having a baby with someone outside the religion was a way of escape?

Well yes it was a way out for her. It was a sort of cry for help. A rebellious act. How else was she going to get out? Also, she was trying to do her best. Going to college. Move away from the religion. Then again she was still under pressure from what was indoctrinated within her, even when she left.

There is very little mention of the father of the family. Why is that?

There are a couple of mentions about him. He is very much outside of what’s going on. In the religion you are not allowed a legal divorce if there are no spiritual grounds for it. So, in the story they have fallen out love and he has moved away, but they are not divorced. She is stuck in this limbo, as she is not allowed to reconnect. Ivana is still wearing the wedding ring, there is the odd mention, but he is nowhere to be seen.

Apostasy Candid Magazine
Director Daniel Kokotajlo.

Its filmed with mostly close-ups, where often the background blurred. What was the intention behind that?

We were trying to capture the feeling of people being a Witness. You see they are looking forward to the ‘New System’ and this current world around them is run by satan, the devil and it’s not going to be here for very long. So, we were trying to capture that through close-ups. The disconnect, the blinkered view. I guess what tends to happen with a lot of religious films, there is a lot of iconography that represents elements of that religion. With the Witnesses there is no iconography or imagery or any symbols. They don’t believe in the cross. So, the religious spaces are clinical and simple and so are their spaces at home, so there isn’t much to film in that way. I was more interested in what the characters were going through, so we got closer. In a way it was more about portraits of faces.

That was very obvious in the film, this simplicity, no frills, it permeates everything.

It’s a fundamentalist religion at the core of it. Witnesses used to be called ‘Bible Students’. They liked to think of themselves as academics. There is no need for the superfluous element. It’s about the literature. It’s about the word. The religion is black and white, in that regard. And that as you say ‘permeates’ everything in their lives.

We are generalising here of course. As it’s about this specific family, this mother and that’s the way she is, thats what her space is like. There are small windows into what other Witnesses’ lives are like. For example, the auntie’s house, where they are having a party. Her space is brighter and livelier. They put on the show, the music. Witnesses can be like that, I’m not trying to say they are austere all the time. It’s this particular family and what they are going through.

What’s next for the film?

Well the film is coming out now and its distributed by Curzon and we are hoping for a good response. I am just pleased that it’s out there and people are going to see it. People will be able to understand what Witnesses go through. Looking forward for the response… and that’s just not the film industry but the general public. I am still enjoying the Apostasy wave.

And what’s next for you?

Its early days yet. I have a couple of projects at the treatment stage. Nothing definite I can talk about …. There are modern British stories, that I still want to tell. One of them is about faith, but more in an abstract sense… I’m still very preoccupied with subject of faith.

Apostasy is out now.

Word by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_