A faithful Jehovah's Witness is forced to shun her own sister because of a religious transgression. As the separation draws out, she starts to question the meaning of God's love.A faithful Jehovah's Witness is forced to shun her own sister because of a religious transgression. As the separation draws out, she starts to question the meaning of God's love.A faithful Jehovah's Witness is forced to shun her own sister because of a religious transgression. As the separation draws out, she starts to question the meaning of God's love.
Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) is a mother of two girls, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and her younger sister Alex (Molly Wright). Living in a working-class area in Oldham, Greater Manchester, all three are Witnesses, with Alex in particular embracing the role of a publisher (the name for Witnesses active in proselytising), even going so far as to learn Urdu so she can better preach to people in the neighbourhood. The film begins with Alex attending her doctor (Poppy Jhakra), who is explaining that her condition means she may need a blood transfusion in the future. Giving her a document to sign agreeing to allow such a procedure, the doctor promises to keep it a secret from Ivanna. Alex, however, has no interest in signing. Born anaemic, she received a blood transfusion when only a few hours old, against the wishes of Ivanna, and because of this, she is burdened with a sense of guilt, believing she must atone by adhering rigidly to Witness doctrine, helping at the local Kingdom Hall (the term used by Witnesses for their places of worship), and preaching door-to-door. Meanwhile, Luisa returns home from college, and tells Ivanna that she's pregnant, and even worse, the father is not a Witness. Ivanna is disgusted, demanding that Luisa marry the father. When she refuses, she is "disfellowshipped". However, as one of the requirements of disfellowship is that family members who remain Witnesses cannot have any significant contact, Ivanna forces Luisa to leave home. At the same time, Steven (Robert Emms) arrives in the neighbourhood as a new elder. He becomes friends with Ivanna and Alex, and after a few weeks, proposes to Alex.
This plot summary takes us up to about a half-hour in the film, which is loosely divided into three discernible acts - the first focuses on Alex, the second Luisa, and the third Ivanna. At the end of the first act, the plot takes a turn, which I have to admit, I didn't see coming, and which changes everything for the family and how they conduct themselves and observe their religious beliefs.
To fully engage with the film at a critical level, one must first contextualise its milieu a little. Kokotajlo is himself an apostate, as he was raised a Witness, but left in his 20s. According to official publications, there are now over eight million Witnesses worldwide. The refusal of blood transfusions (an important theme in the film) was introduced in the Netherlands in 1945, based primarily on Genesis 9:4 ("Only flesh with its life - its blood - you must not eat") and Leviticus 17:10 ("If any man of the house of Israel or any foreigner who is residing in your midst eats any sort of blood, I will certainly set my face against the one who is eating the blood, and I will cut him off from among his people"). In 1961, having a transfusion became grounds for disfellowship, at which time Dr. Américo Valério claimed transfusions lead to "moral insanity and sexual perversion," whilst Dr. Alonzo Jay Shadman argued, "the poisons that produce the impulse to commit suicide, murder, or steal are in the blood." It is estimated that in the period 1961-2016, over 33,000 Witnesses died rather than accept blood. In 2016 alone, there were over 1,200 deaths.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is how implicitly Kokotajlo introduces many of these themes, trusting in the audience's intelligence to do the legwork, whilst not even providing us with music cues to tell us what we should be thinking at any given moment. For example, like most religions, Witnesses considers itself the only true religion, and only its adherents will be saved. This is brought to the fore when Alex encounters people who don't subscribe to her beliefs; meeting two of Luisa's college friends, she is bemused that they don't agree with Witness teachings, and even more incredulous when she finds out that not only are they not Witnesses, they are areligious altogether. It's a scene which deftly demonstrates the isolationist nature of Witnesses without telegraphing it.
Tied closely to this is the theme of having independent thoughts, which, again, is introduced very subtly. After Luisa is disfellowshiped, she makes an effort to return to the fold, but Steven expresses doubts as to whether she will succeed, as she "has too many of her own ideas," something frowned upon by Witnesses. That Kokotajlo views this as a central theme in the film is evidenced in multiple interviews he has given. Speaking to The Irish Times, he says, "one of the biggest things that happened to me was going to college. Suddenly, people were asking for my opinion on things. That was a new concept for me as a Witness. At the Kingdom Hall, if you were asked questions, it was an opportunity to say what was already there in the Watchtower." Similarly, speaking to The Guardian, he states, "I went to college, and that was the key, really. People would ask my opinion on something, and I would be scrambling round trying to find an answer in a text somewhere - because that's what life as a Witness is like. It's group thinking based on the interpretation of a text." Likewise, speaking to Screen International, he explains, "I was harbouring doubts since I went to college. I realised that people at college were interested in your opinion. That was a new concept to me because being a Witness it was always about reaffirming the text, group-think, it wasn't about encouraging independent thought."
Another important theme is even more implicit - likening Witnesses to Scientology. This is never overtly addressed, but Kokotajlo's presentation of how Witnesses deal with certain issues unquestionably draws parallels with how Scientologists deal with those same issues. This is perhaps most obvious in how the film depicts disfellowship, emphasising that the family of someone who has been disfellowed must cut off contact with them. This is virtually identical to the notion of "suppressive persons" in Scientology, and according to Kokotajlo, "that's representative of what a lot of Witnesses have to go through. Family members are forced to shun other family members."
Looking at the film in a more aesthetic sense, an interesting stylistic device is how Kokotajlo presents characters talking to Jehovah. Although they speak aloud, the people around them don't hear what they're saying (think of a soliloquy on a crowded stage in Shakespeare). This essentially positions the viewer as Jehovah - just like Him, we are in a position to hear what others cannot. Indeed, on a couple of occasions, this positioning of the viewer is foregrounded even more, as characters speak direct-to-camera. It's a daring move, but one which is extremely well handled, unifying form and content.
The film is undeniably bleak, but never melodramatic, in its depiction of the conflicts that can arise when a family dynamic is in diametrical opposition to Witness doctrine. However, a vital point is that whilst the film is highly critical of the closed-off nature of the religion, the rules and regulations, it depicts very humanised characters. In relation to this, Kokotajlo says, "one of the aims of the film was to treat the Witnesses with a lot of respect. I have a lot of compassion for the people within the religion. It's the rules that the organisation creates that I have an issue with. Not the people trying to navigate those rules."
Along the same lines, the acting is exemplary, which each of the three leads evoking both sympathy and derision at different points. That the viewer can empathise with a staunch fundamentalist such as Ivanna is testament both to Finneran's nuanced performance and Kokotajlo's compassionate screenplay. The story obviously comes from a place of respect; this is not an arbitrary and/or sarcastic hit-job written by someone who is bitter about their time in the religion, but is instead a presentation of how Witness dogma can affect the people on the ground. Dogmatic proclamations from on-high are all very well and good, but what happens when they clash with the everyday? This is essentially what the film is about, and Kokotajlo handles it brilliantly.
From a directorial point of view, he keeps things simple and functional. The lack of budget works for the narrative, as Kokotajlo shuns any kind of directorial gymnastics in lieu of a pseudo-documentarian approach to the material, with the influence of people such as Anthony Asquith, Terence Rattigan, and Ken Loach unmistakable. In this sense, Oldham comes across as a very real and lived-in neighbourhood, as opposed to an abstract society which feels like it doesn't exist beyond the parameters of the text.
All things considered, this is strong filmmaking; in equal measure emotive without being apologist, and informative without being condemnatory - not an easy balance to pull off by any means.
- Aug 9, 2018