These thoughts contain spoilers.
Daniel Kokotajlo’s Apostasy, a low key and low budget drama about the problems a family faces when their faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses clashes with life events, has universally been described as a highly impressive debut feature. It has also received praise (on Twitter, at least) from ex-JWs who feel it provides a highly accurate reflection of their experiences within the faith.
Apostasy is about Ivanna, a devout Witness with a severely anaemic 18 year old daughter called Alex, and another daughter called Luisa who announces she has become pregnant after sleeping with a boy from college. It goes without saying that the performances, from Siobhan Finneran, Molly Wright, and Sacha Parkinson as the three central characters are terrific, as are the supporting cast. Within the drama there are several heartbreaking moments – none more so than when Ivanna hands Alex a book called ‘Youths Who Put God’ first, an account of children who had refused lifesaving blood transfusions, as inspiration to remind her of her religious duty in the face of her illness.
There is also a definite sense of humour and an acknowledgment of the absurd moments that can occur when the beliefs of the JWs come into contact with 21stcentury British life – such as door knocking on a Muslim household, and Ivanna’s exasperated comments to Luisa; ‘What’s Jesus going to say when he comes back to destroy the earth and you’re at college?’.
Other details are only picked up on a second viewing, such as the significance of a party-piece play by three costumed young children, and immediately after the event (which I won’t reveal here) – when Ivanna leaves the hospital out of focus, and then the slow reveal to the audience across a couple of scenes of exactly what has happened to Alex.
Most of the reviews you read will focus on the excellence of such content. However, I want to discuss the framing. Like Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, the film is shot in 4:3, rather than the standard widescreen 16:9. This, traditionally, is thought to lead to a more claustrophobic aesthetic, going as it does against cinema’s selling point of being expansive and full of scale, with narratives that match the size of the screen, with grand plots told on large canvasses. Instead, Apostasy privileges the close up and the intimate.
Scenes end with CUs, and then the next scene often begins with another, eschewing the typical establishing shot that reveals the narrative space. The use of close ups during dialogue, and the tactic of holding the close shot for longer – with characters listening as they are spoken to by other characters immediately offscreen – gives the impression of disembodied voices, as if to allude to the presence of an unseen God. Alex also talks to God in voice over and onscreen.
An early dialogue scene in a car between four characters, and which reveals the slightly awkward way Alex converses with non-JWs, and demonstrates Luisa’s ability to interact and socialise more comfortably, is edited without a single two-shot. The film’s form reflects the sense of disconnection generated by the dramatic content.
When Luisa confesses to her pregnancy, it is broken up into individual shots, and hints at the fracturing of the family – the sisters in a two-shot, Ivanna on her own or with just her voice while the sisters listen, or a shot of Ivanna with Luisa in the foreground and out of focus. The scene begins with them walking along a canal path in the same shot, so the subsequent splintering of the editing is doubly powerful.
The framing also is atypical. Scenes in corridors in the Kingdom Hall frequently show lots of screen space above the character’s heads, with a disproportionate amount of ceiling. Another shot of a skyline above a row of terraced houses is framed from the upstairs bedrooms up – with lots of cloudy sky. There is a shot of an apartment block with a car parked in front, but framed midway down the hubcaps, rather than showing us the whole tyre touching the tarmac. There are multiple scenes shot through door frames, or in doorways, through glass, and against windows leading to half silhouette effects. These underlit moments are not for any noirish impact, but instead provides a sense of realism that still avoids using familiar short cuts, such as hand-held shots or overlapping dialogue. A deleted scene on the DVD release, when a member of the public harasses Ivanna while she is handing out leaflets, is kept entirely focused on the man. Ivanna is only heard answering his questions. It is possible, or even likely, that Kokotajlo shot the reverse, but it is entirely in-keeping with the rest of the aesthetic that the camera doesn’t waiver from just one character, despite him being in dialogue with another.
Such unusual framing, evident throughout, keeps the audience at an oblique angle, offsetting expectations of social realist visual tendencies (which might be expected given the small scale and its northern setting). The framing destabilises the viewer, keeping them at the antiseptic distance, making every exchange, even between family members, awkward and filtered through politeness, tradition, or dogma.
Apostasy is an incredibly rich drama, but the framing and form (there is also much to say about the use of sound and music), is what gives the film its depth. I can see myself returning to this film many times to consider how the form adds such nuance to the content.