The beginning of September saw the unveiling of a new film with a unique single-word title: Apostasy. A word which has little meaning or function to most people, but to Jehovah’s Witnesses, apostasy is Kryptonite. It is the ultimate sin.
Writer and director Dan Kokotajlo reached deep into his own Jehovah’s Witness childhood to explore the destructive nature of religious control and interference, capturing with precision the punishment inflicted upon a family when one member decides to have a relationship – with a non-Jehovah’s Witness. Dating and marriage outside of the Witness faith is strictly forbidden, and a physical relationship is a guaranteed path to being disfellowshipped and shunned. But the worst sin of all is vocal rejection of the JW dogma, or apostasy. While Witnesses frequently forgive sins ranging from “fornication” to murder and child molestation, welcoming such persons back into the fold, even from prison – an apostate of this religion will be ultra-shunned. The Watchtower magazine once lamented that public execution for apostasy is no longer an option. As recently as 2011, Jehovah’s Witness leaders declared that apostates are “mentally diseased,” a statement which caused global outrage among former Witnesses, and even resulted in a police investigation, as reported by the Guardian.
Former Jehovah’s Witness John Kurtz had an opportunity to attend the premier of the film Apostasy at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has contributed his thoughts about this much-anticipated movie:
Apostasy is a movie about a Jehovah’s Witness family consisting of a single, older mother and her two, almost grown-up, daughters. This excellent film takes place in modern day England and addresses many situations that would be indicative to Jehovah’s Witnesses around the globe. Some of the terms used in the movie as well as the scenery would be a little unfamiliar to people in other parts of the world, but after a half an hour or so I found that I could follow along quite easily. This movie had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2017. I was so excited to be given a ticket and accompanied by my friend who was once one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and served as an elder in Toronto. The highest I ever managed to reach in the Jehovah’s Witness world was Ministerial Servant and a regular pioneer.
Like so many Jehovah’s Witnesses who have left their faith, or have slowed down in their activity with the Watchtower organization, I was very curious to see this movie. It isn’t often that movies or television shows deal with the subject of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I was interested in seeing what information would be covered. The story of Apostasy covers a few different subject matters that any Jehovah’s Witness would recognize and identify with. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but I think that it’s safe to say that the strength of this film comes from its accurate portrayal of the day-to-day life of ordinary Jehovah’s Witnesses, and not just from clever writing or unexpected twists in the story. The movie is so accurate in fact that we were left wondering if the filmmaker had access to a Kingdom Hall. So many of the interactions and situations shown in the film had us laughing out loud and, I’m sure, the rest of the packed theater couldn’t understand what we found so funny.
The one problem that I really had with this movie is the title itself. I don’t know why Dan Kokotajlo decided on the word Apostasy, as I didn’t find anything “apostate” about the film at all. In fact, with only slight changes to the narrative or different accents on some of the shots, the Watchtower Society could use this movie as one of its propaganda pieces. It was just that good and accurate. No one is shown as being evil or even having a bad motive (to use a Jehovah’s Witness term) in the Kingdom Hall or outside in their leisure or work activities. In fact this is a very salient point; most Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they are doing very good and important work and they genuinely care for each other. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses can also navigate quite successfully through life even though they are saddled with many rules and restrictions that other people wouldn’t understand. Certainly, in some cases, having a purpose in life and some structure, could be very helpful, even if the whole belief system was wrong. When your whole family and all of your social connections have the same lifestyle as you, no matter how strange this would appear to other people, it would feel very natural and comfortable to someone who was immersed in it. As far as my own background of growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, I can honestly say that I met some fantastic people and had some really fun times. Having rigid rules probably stopped me from gambling, taking drugs, drinking too much alcohol or having premarital sex. It wouldn’t work for everyone, as we all respond differently to situations, but it did work for me for a long time. Of course, having these same restrictions also prevented me from going to university, pursuing a career, or thinking about property ownership and investments until I had mentally left the group much later, almost too late. Also, I cannot say that banning myself from having sex was a good thing at all. I believe that the movie Apostasy shows these facts well. The Jehovah’s Witness community is shown to be one of friends who have fun gatherings, work together in their businesses and even share baked goods at the Kingdom Hall – all while they are dealing with the crushing mental burdens of their beliefs.
The protagonist of the film had a blood transfusion forced upon her at birth. This situation was dealt with well, although I would say that it is just a small minority of Jehovah’s Witnesses that ever really have to deal with that issue. It was my pleasure to have a conversation with the well-known actor, Stanley Tucci, following the premier of his film The Children Act, also featured at the Toronto International Film Festival. I told Stanley that I had been one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and was very familiar with the subject of a JW fighting off blood transfusions as portrayed in his movie. I also told this actor that I had learned from JW Survey that about 30,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses had died from the Watchtower directives on blood. Mr. Tucci replied that modern medicine has killed far more people than that. What this intelligent and insightful man was saying was that we should have a say over our medical treatment and that probably many of the substances, drugs and operations used in medicine are harmful, in some ways. So although no religious organization should force their opinions on you or your family, you should be part of the decision making process with your doctor.
The younger Jehovah’s Witness in Apostasy, the protagonist, is approached by a very nice, new, single elder in her congregation. This is the dream of every woman in the Jehovah’s Witness world: to be courted by a young, cool, attractive elder. The courtship takes place just as the Watchtower leaders recommend: The young couple talks about their spiritual goals and the mother sits just outside of the room, with the door open. The older daughter, who would be certainly the antagonist if this were a Watchtower film, has already been disfellowshipped by this point for “immorality” and her out of wedlock pregnancy.
Now the story line of the older sister getting pregnant and being publicly humiliated and shunned is something very familiar to me. This is exactly what happened to my sister when we were teenagers and still living at home. My sister never benefited from having real-world discussions with our parents or anyone else, about sex. We were simply told to avoid being alone with people of the opposite sex and to wait for marriage. This seems to be the dream of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other evangelical and fanatical religious groups. You just preach against sex – and it won’t happen. But people aren’t built that way, and if they were, the human race would probably die out in a single generation (or possibly an overlapping generation, pun intended). The mother in the film reacted exactly like my mother did, and unless you have experienced this, it’s hard to believe that a person could abandon their child right when they need them the most. The indoctrination was shown very well – the mother was extremely conflicted because she was looking for mercy and leniency from her elders and friends. She was shown as someone whose mind was totally conditioned to follow the rules, even though it would be so easy and natural to do the right thing – to support and love her daughter and new granddaughter. The elders were shown as very nice guys, but also as men who would not bend the rules. From my experience, the actors used as elders would probably be the nicest and most qualified Jehovah’s Witnesses that you could hope to meet. By contrast, the elders that I dealt with were often mean, uncaring or inept. To a Jehovah’s Witness watching this film, it would seem natural and beneficial to follow the shunning rules. To a person who was never part of this doomsday cult, the mandate that the mother and younger sister had to totally ignore this poor girl with her new baby would be mind boggling and extremely unloving, to say the least.
I am hoping that my mother will watch this film when she gets the chance, even though it might be very painful for her. My mother tried so hard to be strong and faithful even though she was completely humiliated and tormented by what the Jehovah’s Witnesses put her though. My parents were beaten down by the local elders, who only made a bad situation so much worse than it had to be. The people who really did help my family were our “worldly” aunts, uncles and cousins. These were the very people my parents thought would be laughing at them because of how they preached the Kingdom message and warned that they would be destroyed at Armageddon.
Fortunately my parents and everyone else will be able watch this film soon because it will be widely available; it found a buyer at the film festival. Although some tears will be shed as they relive a painful part of their past, my parents will also realize that other people went through the same experiences. They should finally find solace in the fact that all around the world, Jehovah’s Witness elders enforce unloving rules, and they are unqualified to interfere with families. At last they should realize that they weren’t picked on as individuals. Jehovah’s Witnesses have a system in place that processes people going through normal life situations and punishes them for deviating from their rules. This is done on an industrial scale and in a repetitive manner everywhere Jehovah’s Witnesses can find the legal freedoms to take those same freedoms away from their members.
Some of the things that my friend and I found humorous about this movie was the scene where some children put on a drama for the older Jehovah’s Witnesses at one of their small parties. This is a very common thing at JW gatherings. It can be cute as well as pathetic at the same time. The movie also showed a scene where the two sisters were preaching at someone’s home. It was so accurate that I felt like I was reliving that part of my life! We also were astounded at the accuracy of the interior shots of the Kingdom Hall as well as all of the situations and terms that were used.
I would recommend this film to anyone who wants to put some bad experiences to rest, to gain solace that your situation was by no means a one-off. Many people are conflicted and tormented as they are punished for breaking the rules of a group of men who claim they work for God, and who hold the keys to unlocking your salvation. If anyone can watch this movie, and take a step back, they should be able to see how crazy the whole concept of “God’s organization” really is. Also, anyone that is the least bit curious about Jehovah’s Witnesses and wonders if this group really could have he “truth” should watch it. They could spend just under two hours and experience pretty much everything an active JW would experience, and save themselves years or even decades of anguish and frustration. – John Kurtz