Dir.: Dan Kokotajlo; Cast: Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson, Molly Wright, Robert Emms; UK 2017, 96 min
Dan Kokotajlo’s debut feature is an intelligent study in emotional fascism based on his own experiences. It tells the heart-breaking story of a family in Oldham where three women fall victim to the dogmatic pressures of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, an evangelic organisation with no empathy for its members, and certainly not if they are female.
Ivanna (Finneran) is a middle-aged woman living with her two daughters, college student Luisa (Parkinson) and Alex (Wright) who is still at school. The father is never mentioned, and Ivanna has made sure that both of her daughters are committed to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose ‘Elders’ are, unsurprisingly, all male.
Ivanna embraces every word preached down to her from the institution’s dogmatic Elders and belittles the Catholic Church – hardly a liberal institution – as “airy-fairy, they believe in something like the soul”. Whereas the Jehovah’s Witnesses credo is that the blood of its members is the pure manifestation of the Master God – and should not be messed with, particularly not by medical staff trying to save life.
Apostasy (meaning abandonment of belief) begins in a hospital where a nurse is secretly offering the anaemic Alex a much-needed blood transfusion knowing very well that she has already been stigmatised for having a blood transfusion as a new born. Alex is shy and full of self-doubt largely because she too believes her blood is not “pure” anymore.
Meanwhile, Luisa not only falls in love with an “unbeliever”, but also gets pregnant by him. This causes a great deal of friction between between the sisters and provides most of the film’s dramatic tension. Luisa’s mother’s darkest fears have come true and Ivanna is only too ready to have her oldest daughter thrown out of the church: in an act euphemistically called a “disfellowship”. In reality this means that her family is forbidden to communicate with Luisa.
Ivanna is only to ready to follow these orders, and making sure that the same ‘misfortune’ does not befall Alex, finds immediately a suitable husband for her in Stephen (Emms) a shy, insecure young man with hardly any social manners. He, like Ivanna, repeats the church’s dogmas in everyday life, and seems the perfect partner for Alex, who tries hard to be the perfect little soldier for Jehovah. All members wait for the Armageddon to happen soon (even though there was false alarm in 1975), the new system will replace everything known today, and, needless to say, only true disciples of the church will survive to live in this new paradise.
A shocking event then intervenes to slightly destabilise and dilute this rich character study between the women, as the narrative then focuses largely on the church and its influences, which are nonetheless intriguing, but somehow manage to carry the film through.
This is true horror (Kokotajlo grew up in a household of Jehovah’s Witnesses), and impressively acted, particularly by Finneran. It seems unbelievable that the earnest members of the church, who we all encounter at tube stations or at the front door, are capable of such emotional warfare against anybody who disobeys their commands. Adam Scarth’s images are sparse and lean like the whole production, proving again, that one can create a small masterpiece on a minibudget. AS
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