Apostasy Daniel Kokotajlo (UK 2017) Sioban Finneran
viewed Tyneside Cinema 30 July 2018; ticket: £9.75
like shooting fish in a barrel
It’s not clear whether Daniel Kokotajlo’s film Apostasy refers to his own actions in making this movie, to something in the script or both. If apostasy refers to his own actions in leaving the Jehovah Witnesses and making this film he would have been better to have produced a documentary rather than this limp dramatic statement. A scenario that betrays its BBC provenance, shot to look like a low budget soap opera and a script that is content to do nothing more than stitch up subjects as bigoted narrow minded obsessives.
As if! As if Jehovah’s witnesses were different from any other closed group based upon exclusivity of their own belief systems: not possessing metaphysical beliefs but possessed by metaphysical beliefs. Cue as exemplars: Scientology , Seventh-Day Adventists, Branch Davidian, Mormons, Plymouth Brethren, these latter being the subject of 2013 BBC Documentary which portrayed them as a secret reclusive sinister cult.
For some reason the BBC decided it did not want another documentary about cults. By way of a change a drama would be better. Daniel Kokotajlo as film maker would be legitimised by his status as an ex ‘Witness’ thereby having license to make his film, which would be shot in a sort of documentary style. The BBC to have the best of both worlds.
The problem is that Kokotajlo’s approach to his material is embarrassingly crude. the only idea in his the script is to set up the Witnesses as men of straw and then to proceed with gusto to knock ‘em down. Like shooting fish in a barrel.
The problem with Kokotajlo’s writing is that he is probably too close to his material to see it. We don’t know his motive or state of mind in relation to the making of Apostasy. Perhaps Kokotajlo intended his film as a final act of disassociation; perhaps he wants to caste judgement upon the ‘Witnesses’ as they have judged him; perhaps he just wants to exploit elements of their beliefs that will make a good soap drama. As is often the case those closest to their material often singularly fail to understand critical elements of their subject. Sam Fuller as a script writer director, was a perceptive commentator on America. But as an ex GI who survived three beach landings during world war 2, his war movies are his least successful films. Likewise the films shot in the 40’s and 50’s Hollywood that endure both as outstanding movies and germane critiques of the USA were mostly made by émigré directors.
In relation to Kokotajlo’s depiction of the Witnesses: their inflexibility of belief their hierarchic structure and their rejection of the world. These are not in the least surprising. These are the characteristic defining features of all religious and ideological cults. It would be more surprising if the Jehova’s Witnesses were not like this. That is the point: their practice of life cuts them off from the mainstream culture and social relations; their practice of life means that often the choices and life styles of mainstream society are closed off to them. This is the point: that they live in and are sustained by opposition to the world. In return they are rewarded by a dogmatic epistemological monopoly of ‘truth’ and the eschatological certainly of being the ‘elect’. In the time of the ‘New System’ the Jehovas Witnesses will inherit the earth. Commitment is until death: death but a temporary state.
Kokotajlo’s script is built around the situation of two young sisters Luisa and Chloe. Each in their own way epitomise the dilemmas as seen by outsiders to the Jehovah cult. Luisa is excluded not because she has become pregnant, but rather because she choses loyalty to her boyfriend rather than to the Witnesses. But although Luisa’s trials continue throughout the length of Apostasy the real issues never enter into the script: the nature of her relationship with her boyfriend, how she understands her situation. What we see is that her attempts to reconcile herself with her faith are interrogated by a patriarchal elite. But in movement as directed by the script, not by any internal dynamic. Luisa is more of a puppet, whose strings are pulled any which way by the needs of a script that has to deliver a steady supply of moments.
Intertwined with Luisa’s story is that of her sister Chloe. This latter strand is the emotive ploy used by Kokotajlo to construct drama about her death, death which is caused by her refusal to have a blood transfusion. But this ultimate demonstration of faith and commitment by Chloe is stragely handled by the scripts mechanics. It is glossed over, never allowed to emerge into full light, a death bured in the shadows of the writer/director’s uncertainty.
There is an empty centre to this strand of the drama which is filled out by an implicit dishonest invitation of the audience to act as judges.
The above paragraph points to omissions evasions and lacuna in the script. On its own terms Kokotajlo’s script evades key areas of concern. A number of things troubled me. Firstly although prohibition of blood transfusion is a core belief of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is never any explanation of the reason for this. Strange that something at the heart of the film, at the very centre of Chloe’s (and perhaps her mum’s) decision to refuse transfusion, is simply omitted. For some reason Kokotajlo is happy to leave this core feature of faith unexplained? Why? Chloe’s death is likewise short changed.
One moment Chloe has collapsed at a party. Cut! Next shot, mum is walking away from the hospital having been (we presume) with her daughter when she died. The omittance of Chloe’s death, either as a scene or even as second hand account by mum to someone else, seems an act of filmic apostasy. This is a core moment. The supreme moment of justification: Chloe is in hospital where a blood transfusion can save her; but Mum and perhaps Chloe validate their beliefs and refuse medical intervention. Kokotajlo passes over the core event with silence and a cheap cut. An act of dereliction in a film that is supposedly about a religious sect who have core beliefs about the precise nature of death. So not only is their no accounting of the manner of Chloe’s death, but the nature of her funeral and the disposal of her body is also ignored. Simply omitted by Kokotajlo. Core to all religious belief is the manner of disposal of the body. Given that the Jehovah Witnesses place so much importance on the blood, how was Chloe’s blood actually or metaphysically disposed of? As the script develops Apostasy seems ever more to be the work of a charlatan: a charlatan film maker.
Finally in the script much is made of Luisa’s delicate understanding of her mother’s position in relation to helping her. Luisa understands that her mother is under interdiction not to directly hand her anything. A no touch rule. This pantomime is carefully played out until the final sequence where mum asks Luisa for a glass of water; inexplicably Luisa drops everything, including her baby to rush off and fetch water. This crassly scripted piece of nonsense then allows Mum to scoop up baby and try and make off with her: a crude device to end the film on a moment of sub prime melodrama.
Perhaps Kokotajlo thinks he has made a film about the Jehovah Witnesses. He has not. He has made a TV style close-up dominated film, that is a no more than a soap opera with a cardboard Jehovah Witness backdrop.