Daniel Kokotaljo, writer and director of this film, was nominated for a BAFTA in the category Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. He also won a Bursary at the 2018 London Film Festival and the film won Best Film at the UK Screen Awards. The film has a 100% critics’ rating and 90% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Daniel Kokotajlo was a Jehovah’s Witness from the age of eight until his early twenties, when his doubts about the religion became overwhelming. Now this 37-year-old Mancunian writer-director has made his debut with an intensely controlled and concentrated film about the exaltation of living within the religion, and the horror of being expelled from it. Apostasy is muted: hushed, still, almost colourless. But don’t let that fool you. Its pain is all the more distressing for being muffled.
The film tackles religious fundamentalism through the lens of an all-female Jehovah’s Witness family. Living in Oldham, single mum Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) and her two young daughters, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and Alex (Molly Wright), are devout, attending services and going door-to-door to spread the word. However, an act of transgression against their faith’s oppressive rules raises the stakes to dramatic levels. The church’s elders insist on total commitment or expulsion from the community.
Kokotajlo draws on his own experiences as a former Witness to bring intelligence and nuance to the story. His characters are never lambasted for their beliefs, but neither do they go unquestioned. It is a quietly brilliant work that balances the conflicts of three women, and the trio of actresses playing them give stunning performances.
The drama moves through the stark interiors of their Kingdom Hall, the family’s terraced house and drab office spaces. The stifling atmosphere echoes the community’s oppressive systems. Close-ups draw us in on moments of silent anguish with an almost voyeuristic intimacy. For all his craft, Kokotajlo’s greatest triumph is in portraying a community of fundamentalists with such compassion, shining a light on rarely explored subject matter in a way that never feels exploitative. This is a standout British drama that pointedly asks us to question the strictures of institutionalised religion.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall