Interview: Daniel Kokotajlo talks Apostasy
Matthew Turner | On 17, Sep 2018
As devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, sisters Alex and Luisa and their mother, Ivanna, are united in The Truth. Alex looks up to her confident older sister, while striving to follow in Ivanna’s footsteps as a ‘good Witness’. But when Luisa starts to question the advice of the Elders, she makes a life-altering transgression that threatens to expel her from the congregation. Unless Ivanna and Alex can persuade her to return, they must shun her completely.
Written and directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s Witness, Apostasy provides rare insight into the complex nature of faith, family, duty and love. With the film out now to stream in the UK (read our review here), we sit down with Daniel to discuss his remarkable directorial debut:
How did the project come about, first of all?
We applied for a scheme called iFeatures, which is a scheme for first-time filmmakers funded by the BBC and BFI. And at that point I just had like a two-page treatment and I developed the story from there. I’ve taken on different approaches and the story’s changed quite a lot since then. And along the process, I was trying to work out why am I doing this, who is it for, as well, who’s the audience for this, and that’s something I was struggling with a lot. And I realised at some point in the development I was actually trying to appeal to a lot of different types of people. There’s the general, sort of secular audience who just want to come and be entertained and engaged in an interesting story. And, as well, I was hoping to shed some light on some of the things that go on within the Witnesses. But then, as I was developing it, people were getting in touch with me and I became aware of thousands of people who had been through the same situation as the characters, so I felt a responsibility then to tell that story and possibly they might connect with it in a deeper way. And then, also, the Witnesses themselves who are still in the religion, I wanted to respect those people and what they go through. I’ve got a lot of compassion and I care a lot about the people within the religion, so I never wanted it to be a hate-filled or driven project in that way.
One of the things that really stuck out was the balance that you give in the film to both sides…
It was something that I was constantly struggling to get right all the way through. Not struggling, but something I worked very hard on, just trying to work out what I was doing, how much detail is necessary as well, that was another thing, how much exposition, how much window dressing or world-building do I need to put into the story, and balancing that with plot and character and just trying to tell an engaging story as well.
Can you speak a bit about your own background, what it was like growing up as a Witness?
My mum came to the religion when I was a kid, about eight or nine years old, and she started attending meetings in Kingdom Hall and then, slowly, we started to attend as well and that meant we became Witnesses. And with that, we had to give up a lot of activities, such as Christmas and birthdays. I started to realise I was becoming an outsider in a way, even my school and friends as well. And it went on like that until I attended university and that’s when I finally broke away, I moved away from my family and community and eventually stopped attending.
And you say your family and your siblings are all out of the religion now?
Yeah. My brother and sister are, yeah. My mum’s still a Witness.
But you’re still in touch?
Yeah, and my extended family are Witnesses as well. No, I have a good relationship with my mum. My extended family, we talk on occasion, but we don’t talk about certain subjects and we just leave it at that, really. We’ve maybe moved apart and it’s because we share different interests and just don’t want to get into arguments about the Witnesses and things that I now believe in.
Do you think your mum will see the film?
No, I don’t think so. It’s hard to say. She’s proud of me. She’s proud that I’ve done something with my life and I’ve got to make a film. But she’s probably apprehensive about it and she knows that the story’s going to be a bit too close to the bone for her. So she won’t watch it for a while, anyway. She might become more curious about it at some point and she’ll eventually watch it, but I don’t think she’ll watch it right now.
It took 21 days to film, that’s quite an impressive achievement. Did you feel every minute of that?
[Laughs] Yeah, man! It was tough! It was tough, we were shooting seven, eight, nine pages a day and we decided only to do five day weeks, so I felt a real pressure to get it all and I’m quite calculating as well, with the performances, so I knew I was going to require quite a lot of takes and I wanted it in a particular understated way, so I was constantly battling with time, but we pulled it off.
I thought the sound design was something that really stood out. How did all that come about, and was that a deliberate thing?
I’m glad you picked up on that. We worked very hard on that. It was a very understated design and understated score as well, there’s not much music in it. We felt it just represented the lives of the Witnesses, first and foremost. They live quite quiet and simple lives. But then there’s an intensity to it, there’s something about silence and quietness that, for me, creates an atmosphere and a very tense atmosphere, so then any little sound or movement from an actor or a lift of an eyebrow, the small things are suddenly magnified because of the overall quietness of the film. So it was a particular kind of style that I think is quite common in my short films as well, that I really tried to push in my first feature film.
Was there a particular sound that you were really pleased with?
The sequence that you’re referring to, the tree chopping, that’s when Alex is becoming ill and her sister, they’ve just had that fall out and there’s that sequence where it becomes quite cerebral and we don’t quite know what’s happening to Alex, and it’s all just done through sound design, and that’s something we worked quite hard on, me and the sound designer, Matthew Wilcox. So yeah, I’m very happy with that part.
I thought your framing was really interesting as well, especially the shot with Siobhan’s character, where her head’s at the bottom of the frame when she’s in the Hall. What was the thinking behind that?
Me and my cinematographer, Adam, we were looking at a lot of paintings and photography. There was a couple in particular that I was really taken with. Daniel Coll, a Spanish painter and there was a Belgian painter, Michael Borrowmans, both of them had done a quite formal series of portraits of women. And Michael Borrowmans did a series of religious portraits and they were very simple and austere and because of that, they just evoked a certain intensity and purity, and I was trying to get that across, and I was using them as reference images a lot. And then we were doing a test shoot at the beginning of the process and we couldn’t quite capture the feeling that we had in these paintings and photographs and we were struggling to find out how to get it across and at one point, we just said, well, let’s try and shoot in a stills photography aspect ratio, which is 3:2, so it’s not quite 4:3, the old TV ratio, it’s a little bit wider, it’s the stills photography ratio, which is unconventional, but we did it, and it just suddenly started to feel like these images we had and gave off that feeling, like we were focused on people, that they were images of people’s faces, as opposed to locations or a typical cinematic look.
Who are your main influences as a director?
I really appreciate British filmmaking. I discovered it late, when I was at university and I came across people like Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke and the whole Free Cinema movement as well. And they’ve continued to be an influence for me, especially Mike Leigh and the way he works and the sort of anti-Hollywood attitude he has and how he’s focused on British stories. I was really taken with his work and it continues to influence me. But yeah, just a big fan of British cinema. But then, at the same time, because of my Italian and Ukrainian heritage, I early on became quite interested in Soviet cinema and Italian filmmakers like Pasolini and Fellini, and I think maybe some of that comes through a bit in the film.
What was the hardest thing to get right overall, in the shoot?
[Laughs] Oh god. There’s a lot of things that were tricky. One was getting the balance right in the edit, of when we sort of switch protagonist. Like, how much do you foreshadow what was about to happen? And then how do you sustain an audience, and the interest of the audience when it does happen? So me and my editor, Napoleon, we spent a lot of time working on that and trying to balance it, and I think we got it to a good place in the end.
I thought that was really well done. There was a real atmosphere of shock in the audience I saw it with.
I guess people really don’t want that to happen. They just wish that it would be anything else except that. They just refuse to believe it, even when it seems quite obvious. So it’s interesting. We realised that it was a great way to show how the Witnesses feel about what Alex did, that they respected what she did and they were trying to see it as a brave choice that she made, but underneath, there still is a grief that’s being suppressed by their faith. So we were slowly revealing it through how they were dealing with it, to the point where we just said, look, we’re going to have to show the audience what has happened.
Given that the story was, in many ways, based on your own experiences, why did you choose to have it be about two sisters?
It’s a good question. Because my mum was the first one to join the religion and she brought in the rest of my family, who were all women – they were all my aunties and my cousins were all women – so I was seeing a lot of what happened to them and experienced a lot of what it meant to be a Witness through their experiences. And as I got older, I started to question the way that they were being treated within the Kingdom Hall. So that’s something that always stuck with me, and it became very important early on to look at that and the way that men and women are treated within the religion, a very patriarchal society and women are treated in a certain way and I wanted to explore that.
And finally, do you give any thought to how the story continues?
We like to leave it with the audience, really, what could go on. Ivanna herself even hints at what she’s going to do. She’s so deep in her faith by that point, because of what happened to Alex, she can’t let go and that’s the only way she can think of to save her granddaughter now. At that point in the story, she’s given up on Luisa, but she’s not given up on her granddaughter. And again, that’s so common, of what people go through, the sort of problems that are created when people who are disfellowshipped then have children, where parents who they don’t speak to suddenly want to communicate with their grandchildren, it creates another dilemma that they’ve got to deal with.