Breaking Up is Hard to Do

APOSTASY (PG) 2017 UK 96min; written & directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, with Siobhan Finneran, Robert Emms, Sacha Parkinson.

It’s been reported that the Jehovah’s Witness religious faith is now banned, outlawed in Russia. This is maybe because the church is headquartered in the US, or maybe because the Russian Orthodox Church is flexing its Putin endorsed muscles. Jehovah’s Witnesses are apparently seeking asylum in Finland. Other interesting facts from Kingdom Hall: both Patti Smith and Prince were Jehovah’s Witnesses, Patti Smith rejecting the faith as a teenager, Prince a convert in his forties.

We’ve all heard of The Watchtower, the most widely circulated magazine in the world, 70 million copies every 4 months, distributed free by the faithful door to door and on pavements and street corners everywhere (except now Russia). Active proselytising is an obligation of the church, along with rejection of blood transfusions and pacifism. More particularly, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to be involved in politics. They don’t vote and, as far as possible, remove themselves from the concerns of the world, their eyes on a higher prize. This make them easy to ignore. And occasionally laugh at. It also means that, apart from Russia, no one takes much notice of them. They keep themselves to themselves. What’s wrong with that?

In fact, as this film makes clear, operating out of sight means getting away with a lot of stuff that maybe wouldn’t be tolerated in an open society. They maintain their ‘below the radar’ status by ruthlessly ostracising anyone who doesn’t toe their strict line; the line being one side of a very male slanted hierarchy and an intense focus on their idiosyncratic doctrine. Dissent is not tolerated. Independent thought is outlawed. And yet, Prince… One Jehovah’s Witness who clearly thought very independently.

It’s a very tricky balancing act, cutting yourself off from stuff, such as life, in order to get closer to something else, spirituality for example, the after-life. It’s a tricky thing for a film-maker too. Or any artist for that matter. Do you look out, engage with the world, to make your art? Or do you turn inward, examining the intricate motivations and compromises, the romantic extremes found in the inner landscape? If your subject is all about the inner life, does the film have to reflect this, focussing relentlessly on the personal at the expense of the political or social, the larger questions of interaction and integration or is this all beside the point? The personal is the political. What I believe, what I know, is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.

In its way the film is an expression of exactly what it seems to be criticising about the Jehovah’s Witness religion, that insularity, the cultivation of the closed mind, of the unswerving adherence to a fixed way of seeing is necessary to living a life in faith, almost as if the filmmakers were unaware of the parallels. In other words, the film presents the story as the intense inner experience of the main characters as if this was the only way to tell the story. That realism, verisimilitude was the only style. And this isn’t to say that the story isn’t compelling and the style ever falters. As expressed here, it is horrific the way a rigid mind-set can lead inexorably to tragedy.

But the film’s strength is also its weakness. Unrelenting reality can also be a kind of ruthless avoidance of any alternative possibilities, humour for example, or metaphor or beauty perhaps. Life’s potential is limitless, Jehovah notwithstanding, just as art is also boundless, inexhaustible.

Apostasy is well acted, committed to its message and its method. However, in the same way that the characters aren’t self-aware, that they are at the mercy of events which, if only they would act, are theirs to change, the film seems not to understand that it is, in a way, a refutation of itself. That the film-maker needs to take his own message to heart, look outwards, take himself less seriously, and maybe take some time out to smell the roses.

Paul Corcoran