AFM: First look at Mike Leigh’s 'Peterloo' (exclusive)

By Wendy Mitchell | Screen

Peterloo_Unit_21881R_small.jpg

Screen can reveal this exclusive first look of Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, now in post production.

Speaker Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) addresses the crowd of reformers as they gather at St. Peter’s Field ahead of the traumatic events of 1819, when British forces attacked a peaceful pro-democracy rally in Manchester, killing at least 15 people.

The ensemble cast also includes David Bamber, Maxine Peake, Nico Mirallegro and Eileen Davies.

Cornerstone Films is handling international sales.

Amazon Studios is financing worldwide rights and handling US distribution on the film, produced by Thin Man Films. Georgina Lowe produces with Gail Egan as executive producer.

Additional financing comes from Film4, which backed development, along with the BFI and Lipsync.

The crew includes Leigh’s usual collaborators DoP Dick Pope, production designer Suzie Davies, costumer designer Jacqueline Durran, and editor Jon Gregory.

Journeyman nominated for 3 BIFAs

Journeyman (2017)

After winning a punishing title defense on points, world middleweight boxing champion Matty Burton (Paddy Considine) collapses. The journey towards regaining his speech, movement and memory will be the toughest fight he’ll ever face, and the prize could not be greater, for his relationship with his wife Emma (Jodie Whittaker) and baby daughter Mia are on the line…

NOMINATIONS

Best Actor
Paddy Considine (Matty Burton) - Cast

Best Make-Up & Hair Design
Nadia Stacey - Make-Up & Hair Design

Best Effects
Luke Dodd - Effects

First Look: Christoph Waltz, Vanessa Redgrave Enjoy Happier Times in 'Georgetown' (Exclusive Image)

By Alex Ritman | THR

Cornerstone Films is screening footage of the crime drama — Waltz's directorial debut — in Santa Monica.

GT_02806_C.jpg

Vanessa Redgrave and Christoph Waltz enjoy some pre-murderous cheer in The Hollywood Reporter's exclusive first- look image for crime drama Georgetown, Waltz’s directorial debut.

Based on the screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Auburn, Georgetown is inspired by the true story of Albrecht Muth, who was convicted in 2011 for murdering his much older socialite wife in Washington, D.C. Based on one of the city's most sensational scandals of recent times, the film will tell the story of an unconventional love affair, an outsider striving for acceptance and the desperate struggle for significance on every level.

The film also stars Annette Bening as Redgrave's disapproving daughter. 

Cornerstone Films is handling international sales and distribution and ICM is overseeing the U.S. sale. Cornerstone will be screening footage to buyers at this year's AFM.

AFM Hot List: 14 Titles Generating Buzz

"Disruption" has been the byword for the American Film Market for several years now. The global independent film industry has struggled to deal with major shocks to the system of producing and distributing indie movies, most notably the evisceration of the home video market in all but a few territories and the rise of global streaming platforms Netflix and Amazon Prime.

But AFM managing director Jonathan Wolf, who admits attendance at the market the past few years "was a little soft," sees signs of a rebound as dealmakers adjust to a new normal in which the "middle ground" film — the $3 million to $7 million production — has dropped out, but there's money to be made with the $30 million-plus star-backed projects.

And then there's the bottom: the $300,000 straight-to-VOD fare AFM is (in)famous for. But market regular Gabrielle Stewart of London-based HanWay Films sees new opportunities for low-budget projects, especially high-quality art house fare. "[There's] a more sophisticated audience hungry for really strong, interesting storytelling and emotionally impactful stories," she says.

Interesting stories abound on THR's AFM 2017 hot list, but their impact will be determined once buyers get a look at the scripts — and budgets — for this year's crop.

 

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Working Title

BUZZ Now filming in Malawi, Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor makes his directorial debut — from his own script — with this drama based on the inspiring real-life story of a young African boy who helped save his village by constructing a wind turbine. Newcomer Maxwell Simba will play the title role.

SALES Cornerstone (international), Participant (U.S.)

AFM: First image revealed of Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgard in 'The Kill Team' (exclusive)

By Wendy Mitchell | Screen

115 _A_Crop.jpg

Screen can exclusively reveal this first image of Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgard in Dan Krauss’s The Kill Team, which wrapped its six-week shoot in Spain on Oct 20.

The psychological thriller is about adapted from Krauss’ 2013 documentary of the same name, about a young American soldier in Afghanistan who struggles between his conscience and his survival when members of his platoon carry out a murderous scheme in the desolate wasteland of Southern Afghanistan.

Cornerstone Films handles international sales and UTA and CAA jointly represent North American rights.

The cast also features Rob Morrow, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell and Brian Marc.

Adrián Guerra is producing through Nostromo Pictures (Buried) together with Wyck GodfreyMarty Bowen and Isaac Klausner from Temple Hill Entertainment (The Fault in Our Stars).

Nostromo Pictures’ Nuira Valls and Miguel Ángel Faura are executive producers and Ben Smith from Temple Hill serves as co-producer.

The crew includes cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, production designer Victor Molero, and costume designer Cristina Sopeña.

Krauss was previously Oscar nominated for The Death Of Kevin Carter.

Mark Gooder and Alison Thompson’s Cornerstone is also selling Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut based on the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind; Mike Leigh’s upcoming Peterloo; Christoph Waltz’s directorial debut Georgetown; Daniel Kokotajlo’s Toronto premiere Apostasy; and Paddy Considine’s boxing drama Journeyman.

Chiwetel Ejiofor begins shoot on directorial debut

By Andreas Wiseman | Screen

Production on the untitled directorial debut of Chiwetel Ejiofor has begun in Malawi.

Ejiofor will star in the project he also adapted from the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, written by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.

Participant Media, BBC Films and BFI back the project.

Potboiler Productions’ Andrea Calderwood (The Last King of Scotland) and Gail Egan (A Most Wanted Man) are producing the film. Participant’s Jeff Skoll and Jonathan King will executive produce with BBC Films’ Joe Oppenheimer, the BFI’s Natascha Wharton and authors Kamkwamba and Mealer.

Cornerstone handles international sales.

12 Years A Slave star Ejiofor said: “William’s story represents what has to be the future in countries like Malawi: developing countries, overflowing with beauty, and with potential which simply needs access to opportunity in order to be fully unleashed. William’s determination and inventiveness created something that not only meant the end of the “hungry season” for his community, it also catapulted him into a future where all his potential could be realised.

“I want this to be a film that allows people to see that Malawi, and the world, will be all the better for everything William and those like him are able to contribute when they have the opportunities they urgently need to carve out their own extraordinary destinies.”

Participant Media, BBC Films and BFI, with funds from the National Lottery, are lead financiers on the project, along with Head Gear, Econet and LipSync.

Participant will be handling the sale of North American distribution rights, while Cornerstone Films will oversee international sales and distribution in all other territories. Econet will handle Sub-Saharan African distribution.

The film follows 13-year-old William Kamkwamba (newcomer Maxwell Simba) who is thrown out of the school he loves when his family can no longer afford the fees.

Sneaking back into the school library, he finds a way, using the bones of the bicycle belonging to his father Trywell (Ejiofor), to build a windmill which then saves his village from famine. The emotional journey of a father and his exceptional son at its heart, William’s tale captures the incredible determination of a boy whose inquisitive mind overcame every obstacle in his path. 

In addition to Ejiofor and Simba, the cast features Lily Banda as William’s older sister Annie; Noma Dumezweni (Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) as Edith Sikelo, the librarian who helped bring William’s story to public attention; Aissa Maiga (Anything for Alice) as William’s mother Agnes; Joseph Marcell (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) as Chief Wimbe; and Lemogang Tsipa (Eye in the Sky) as teacher Mike Kachigunda.

The production leads of the film include cinematographer Dick Pope (Mr. Turner), production designer Tulé Peak (City of God), costume designer Bia Salgado (City of God) and editor Valerio Bonelli (Philomena).

 

Fatboy Slim joins Julien Temple's 'Ibiza - The Silent Movie'

By Orlando Parfitt | Screen

Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) has joined Julien Temple’s upcoming Ibiza – The Silent Movie as its music director. The film will feature music from and curated by the DJ.

The project is a feature length documentary that will provide a “compelling audiovisual journey into Ibiza’s bohemian soul”, featuring original material documenting the island’s club scene alongside unseen archive material.

It is currently undergoing principal photography in Ibiza

Veteran music film director Julien Temple (Glastonbury, The Filth and the Fury, London, The Modern Babylon), said: “With the incredible 2,000 year history of this magical island as a subject and the genius of Norman Cook now on board to produce a soundtrack you can dance to, we believe this film will take event media to a whole new level”.

This project is financed by Silver Reel and BBC Music. It is an Essential Arts Entertainment, Whizz Kid Entertainment and Nitrate Film production developed from an original idea by Whizz Kid Entertainment’s CEO Malcolm Gerrie, and reunites Temple with Essential Arts Entertainment’s Richard Conway and Andrew Curtis (The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, Habaneros) who are producing the film.

Gerrie and the BBC’s Jan Younghusband are executive producers, and the BBC has the UK TV rights.

Cornerstone Films will oversee worldwide film sales and distribution.

Chiwetel Ejiofor to Star in Directorial Debut

By Alex Ritman | The Hollywood Reporter

The Oscar-nominated actor has adapted 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,' with production now starting in Malawi.

Chiwetel Ejiofor has begun production in Malawi on his as-yet-untitled directorial debut, in which he will also star.

The Oscar-nominated British star of stage and screen has adapted William Kamkwamba's autobiography The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, telling the life-changing story of how the author helped save his village as a 13-year-old by constructing a wind turbine from bits of scrap metal, old bicycle parts and wood.

The news was announced Thursday by by Participant Media, BBC Films and the BFI.

Potboiler Productions’ Andrea Calderwood (The Last King of Scotland) and Gail Egan (A Most Wanted Man) are producing the film. Participant’s Jeff Skoll and Jonathan King will executive produce with BBC Films’ Joe Oppenheimer, the BFI’s Natascha Wharton and authors Kamkwamba and Mealer.

Chiwetel Ejiofor said: "William's story represents what has to be the future in countries like Malawi: developing countries, overflowing with beauty, and with potential which simply needs access to opportunity in order to be fully unleashed. William's determination and inventiveness created something that not only meant the end of the "hungry season" for his community, it also catapulted him into a future where all his potential could be realized.

"I want this to be a film that allows people to see that Malawi, and the world, will be all the better for everything William and those like him are able to contribute when they have the opportunities they urgently need to carve out their own extraordinary destinies."

Participant Media, BBC Films and the BFI are lead financiers on the project, along with Head Gear, Econet and LipSync. Participant will be handling the sale of North American distribution rights, while Cornerstone Films will oversee international sales and distribution in all other territories. Econet will handle Sub-Saharan African distribution.

The film follows 13-year-old Kamkwamba (newcomer Maxwell Simba) who is thrown out of the school he loves when his family can no longer afford the fees. Sneaking back into the school library, he finds a way, using the bones of the bicycle belonging to his father Trywell (Ejiofor), to build a windmill which then saves his village from famine. The emotional journey of a father and his exceptional son at its heart, William’s tale captures the incredible determination of a boy whose inquisitive mind overcame every obstacle in his path. Key themes from the film aim to raise awareness around environmental sustainability and the power of education.

In addition to Ejiofor and Simba, the cast features Lily Banda as William’s older sister Annie; Noma Dumezweni (Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) as Edith Sikelo, the librarian who helped bring William’s story to public attention; Aissa Maiga (Anything for Alice) as William’s mother Agnes; Joseph Marcell (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) as Chief Wimbe; and Lemogang Tsipa (Eye in the Sky) as teacher Mike Kachigunda.

Ejiofor is represented by CAA and Hirsch Wallerstein Hayum Matlof and Fishman. In the UK he is represented by Alex Irwin with Markham Frogatt & Irwin, and Casarotto Ramsay & Associates.

The production leads of the film include Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope (Mr. Turner), production designer Tulé Peak (City of God), costume designer Bia Salgado (City of God) and editor Valerio Bonelli (Philomena).

BBC Films, Participant Media and BFI present, and in association with Head Gear & Metrol Technology, EcoNet, LipSync and Cornerstone Films, a Potboiler Production.

Journeyman – first look review

By David Jenkins | Little White Lies

Paddy Considine’s second feature as director is powered by a clutch of big, bold and unabashedly emotional performances.

As with its pugilist hero, Paddy Considine’s second feature as writer and director is scrappy, appealing and wins the day not with a knockout, but scrapes a victory on points. Middle-weight mainstay Matty Burton (Considine) is a father, husband and perma-grinning gent, a little at odds with the vulgar and brash world of British boxing. When opponents resort to cruel taunts as a way to whip up a sense of drama, he demurs, allowing focus and old school sportsmanship to win out the day.

Yet Journeyman isn’t a boxing movie. It isn’t even a sports movie. With a final bout under his belt and his life of domestic bliss neatly laid out ahead of him, one more unexpected (and giant) hurdle reveals itself as Matty returns to the family nest and collapses, suffering the brutal initial effects of a serious brain trauma.

For a while, the focus is split evenly between the tragedy of Matty’s sudden disorientation and the efforts of his stoical wife Emma (Jodie Whittaker), as she tends to both their baby daughter and a husband who’s having to re-learn basic functions from naught. There can be no argument that Considine is a world class actor, and he relishes the opportunity here to deliver a meticulous and respectful portrait of a man who loses vital contact with body and mind that never once looks like a mere technical exercise.

There’s a hint early on that, even though the film’s title refers to Matty, it might in fact be telling Emma’s story, as some of the strongest material involves observing Whittaker exuding a maternal kindness as she internally tangles with this harsh new reality. She knows that pining for the Matty she once knew would be to deny her love for the man she married – in sickness and in health. She believes that his condition is a mere blip, that rehabilitation is an inevitability and normalcy will return. But Considine decides to present a darker side to Matty, riffing on the idea that while he might be damaged up top, he’s still as strong as an ox. (Side note: someone should really cast him as Jekyll and Hyde)

Looking specifically at the performances and the moment to moment interactions between the actors, the film sparkles. The emotions are big and bold, and the tone always errs on the just right side of syrupy sentiment. Where it falters is in its unconvincing storyline, where Matty and Emma are essentially left alone directly after the accident with no apparent help or guidance on hand. Matty’s training team scarper straight away, and their fear of having been complicit in the accident never truly rings true. It’s the contrived situations that prevent the film from really soaring.

It also employs some fancy footwork to retain a cordial relationship with the world of boxing. The chronic health risks posed by boxing are neatly chalked up as a necessary evil, as Matty sternly refuses to blame his colleagues and opponents for his ailments. He doesn’t seem to mind that he has been tossed to the gutter and left entirely alone. But Considine doesn’t appear interested in offering a critique of this world, instead focusing entirely on the difficult recovery process. It feels like a bit of a cop out.

It’s a film which wears its sense of earnestness with pride, and even though it lacks for surprise in its arc, there’s a real sense of tactile humanism at play. In many ways, this film feels like the mirror image of Considine’s directorial debut, Tyrannosaur, which emphasises how open people are to inflict suffering upon one another. Here, it’s about the difficulty of helping those in need, and the burden of protecting your own physical and mental wellbeing.

'Journeyman': London Review

By Nikki Baughan | Screen

Paddy Considine follows up 2011’s ’Tyrannosaur’ with this story of a boxer who is felled in the ring

Dir/scr: Paddy Considine. UK. 2017. 92mins

With this story of a champion boxer trying to rebuild his life after serious head injury, actor-turned-filmmaker Paddy Considine returns to the territory of rage and redemption previously explored in his 2011 directorial debut Tyrannosaur. While Journeyman follows a more traditional narrative of overcoming adversity, Considine’s strong central performance gives the film an emotional resonance.

Following its London Film Festival premiere, StudioCanal will release Journeymanin the UK in February 2018, where it could repeat the modest success of Tyrannosaur; particularly as a UK awards campaign will help generate interest. Similarities to other recent boxing films, including 2016 Miles Teller vehicle Bleed For This and fellow UK picture Jawbone (2017) could, however, limit an already niche audience, and a lack of star power may hinder overseas prospects.

A lifelong boxing fan, writer/director Considine takes the lead of pugilist Matty Burton, who we meet in training to defend his world championship title; an award he won by default, when his previous opponent withdrew due to injury. Opening scenes paint a portrait of contentment; a focused and hard-working sportsman, Matty is also dedicated to his loving wife Emma (Jodie Whittaker) and baby daughter.

A pre-match press conference hints at the drama to come. Matty is determined to prove himself not only worthy of the title he holds, but also remain relevant as he approaches retirement. His opponent Andre Bryte (Anthony Welsh), who goes by the rather on-the-nose nickname of The Future, taunts him with smack talk that will echo throughout the film. “I’m going to take your head off,” he snarls. “This is a life-changer for you.”

He’s right. Head injuries sustained in the bout are severe enough to require brain surgery, and reduce Matty’s cognitive function to a childlike level. As he attempts to rebuild his life — to recognise his daughter, remember how to use the bathroom — Emma is initially a solid support. What Matty hasn’t lost, however, is his pride; unable to give voice to his frustrations, he lashes out in increasingly violent ways that push his marriage to breaking point.

While Journeyman is more a performance piece than fully rounded drama, it works in the context of this particular story. Everything else is stripped away in the face of Matty’s injury, which overwhelms the man he once was and consumes the life he used to have.

Considine has clearly put a large amount of preparation into his performance. Matty’s transformation from elite sportsman to broken man is seen not just in the obviously physical — the slurred speech, the shuffled walk, the rhythmic hand movements — but also the inner workings of the character. His moments of aggression are unexpected, shocking and well-handled.

Elsewhere, Whittaker brings dramatic dimension to a part that never really pushes her beyond the traditional role of supportive wife. There’s certainly much more to be said about Emma’s own struggle with Matty’s illness (and, indeed, with the guilt Andre feels about the situation, hinted at in a brief conversation between the two), but this is Matty’s film and is devoted to him in its entirety.

Evocative camerawork from Laurie Rose captures the new physical and psychological limits to which Matty has to adjust; immediately after the accident he is confined to his home, the clean lines and neutral decor becoming coldly institutional rather than homely. Recurring visual motifs track Matty’s journey of recovery; everyday routines such shaving and making cups of tea become yardsticks of independence, of a life reclaimed inch by gruelling inch.

Journeyman review – Paddy Considine rolls with the punches in heartfelt boxing drama

By Peter Bradshaw | The Guardian

The actor-director’s forceful but flawed story of a fighter facing a bruising crisis also stars Jodie Whittaker, outstanding as his devoted wife

Paddy Considine now presents his second feature as writer-director, and it’s a powerful and sincerely intended personal project about a championship boxer who must confront a terrible personal crisis. The performances are strong and committed – it reminded me a little of Johnny Harris’s boxing film Jawbone – and Considine’s instincts as actor and director are towards self-scrutiny without narcissism. Yet the audience’s buttons are not just pushed, they get hammered with uppercuts and there is a mile-wide streak of Hollywood emotion here, together with a lenient and even celebratory tone about boxing itself, which you may not entirely share. Yet this all gives the film force, and the quality of the acting is absolutely plain.

Matty Burton (Considine) is a boxer who is approaching the end of his career, a mature and likable guy who unselfconsciously enjoys the good things that boxing have brought him; and he’s devoted to his beautiful wife Emma (Jodie Whittaker, soon to star in Doctor Who) and their baby daughter. Nonetheless, he is preparing to defend his title one last time – a bit nettled at those saying his last victory was unconvincing, due to the referee over-cautiously stopping the fight.

His challenger is the brash and arrogant Andre Bryte (Anthony Welsh), who needles him outrageously at the press conference and weigh-in. These scenes, along with his tense farewell to his wife before the fight in their lovely home, show that Considine has perhaps absorbed something from Jake Gyllenhaal’s boxing film Southpaw. The fight itself is a fierce grudge match but Matty goes the distance, wins the judges’ decision, but has taken terrible blows to the head. He collapses at home, and the real struggle now begins.

The succeeding scenes with Considine and Whittaker are the very best of the film: intimately painful, agonising, moving and scary. Emma helps Matty back into his palatial home, after what has clearly been a brain operation and that luxurious house now looks eerily empty and clinically white. We see it the way he sees it, as a kind of one-person hospital ward that he does not entirely recognise. He has become a second child, with halting movements, clouded memory, impaired speech and a change of personality involving a terrifying new temper that he cannot understand. Whittaker’s performance is outstanding: showing her undiminished love, her need to understand and readjust, and showing a moving willingness to make sacrifices. Considine is focused and yet unselfish in his scenes opposite her.

However, the plot progresses in such a way as to give Matty a melodramatic and not wholly credible crisis on a bridge over a fast-flowing river. It also takes Whittaker out of the story for a long period, and it becomes more about Matty’s reconciliation with the guys: his training team, played by Tony Pitts and Paul Popplewell. These scenes are potent and well-acted, too, but I have to say I regretted Whittaker’s absence, and would have liked more scenes about what Emma was going through on her own.

There is a nice moment when Matty is having his hair cut and the conversation turns to the question: who is the best boxer of all time? Well, no prizes for guessing the answer to that one: Ali, because he was bigger than boxing. (Give the truth drug to a cinephile or actor, on the other hand, and the answer might be Jake LaMotta.) Similarly, a boxing film must be about more than just boxing, and Whittaker’s presence shows that Journeyman is capable of that kind of reach. Emma is facing a fight (sometimes an actual, physical fight) with someone she loves. Journeyman is flawed, but intelligent and heartfelt.

Film Review: ‘Apostasy’

By Guy Lodge | Variety

Daniel Kokotajlo makes a daring, devastating debut with this study of an all-female Jehovah's Witness family riven by religious conflict.

“Not endorsed by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” say the closing credits of “Apostasy,” and while you see the practical need for the caveat, it could hardly be a clearer statement of the obvious. The controversial Pittsburgh-founded church does not emerge unbruised from British writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo’s fascinating, quietly battering debut feature, but neither does the wider principle of religious devotion — which isn’t idly or secularly dismissed, but rigorously questioned as to its place on the spectrum between personal faith and institutional obligation.

Born out of Kokotajlo’s own history as a former Jehovah’s Witness, this exquisitely anguished, impeccably acted story of a single mother whose unyielding fidelity to the church tears her in different ways from both her daughters benefits immeasurably from its maker’s unique store of first-hand knowledge. Notwithstanding “Apostasy’s” unassuming scale and style, its genuinely revelatory qualities could make it something of an arthouse conversation piece, following a far-and-wide festival run — begun in Toronto’s Discovery program last month. Casting directors, meanwhile, will be keenly noting the names of the film’s two excellent breakthrough performers, Molly Wright and Sacha Parkinson.

Wright, in particular, must serenely shoulder the bulk of the film’s weight before a sharp, elegant structural fillip at the midpoint that drastically rearranges the human stakes in Kokotajlo’s finely magnified script. As 18-year-old Alex, the dutiful youngest daughter of devout Witness Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), she’s presented as the wholesome future face of an organization that feels increasingly isolated and out of time in their corner of contemporary Manchester. It seems a symbolically pointed detail that the community’s shabby Kingdom Hall is located by the onramp to a freeway, cars rushing past in long shot as the lives inside stay obstinately stationary.

Yet while Alex does everything Jehovah supposedly requires of her, attending all services and submitting to the passionless courtship of Steven (Robert Emms), an old-before-his-time church Elder, she’s made to feel a constant spiritual deficit due to the life-saving blood transfusion she had at birth — viewed by church authorities as a unholy impurity. Doctors recommend another such procedure to treat her chronic anemia; the church, despite her ill health, advises against it. While Alex follows her mother’s unquestioning compliance, her older sister Luisa (Parkinson) is beginning to have doubts, asserting her independence in ways both deliberate — taking an art class at college, dating a worldly Muslim man — and, in the most crucial instance, unplanned.

From this densely packed premise, Kokotajlo teases out multiple lines of rich inquiry, paying equal attention to the internal and external pressures that are softly pulling this family apart: While Luisa’s growing desire for a “normal” life is a more predictable source of strain, it’s a cruel irony that Alex’s meek desire to belong throws her life dangerously off-balance. Initially a stern supporting (if hardly supportive) presence in her daughters’ respective crises, it’s the hidebound Ivanna who emerges, with each pained dramatic stitch of the story, as its most searchingly conflicted figure: a woman not just torn between love for her church and love for her children, but entirely at a loss as to which love she’s morally expected to put first.

While this is hardly unprecedented subject matter on screen — last year’s Italian feature “Worldly Girl” dealt more broadly with youth rebellion within the Jehovah’s Witness flock — “Apostasy” is rare in its visceral and philosophical intensity. As Kokotajlo’s three principals come to different levels of self-awareness at very different paces, he charts their interior changes against the steadfast tenets of their religion with nerve-nettling scrutiny, as the film morphs into something of a psychological thriller. For some followers, their relationship to Jehovah is very much a matter of life and death.

Kokotajlo achieves this complexity with an impressive lack of rhetorical excess at script level; it’s often the unspoken details in “Apostasy” that rattle us most. The fate or whereabouts of the girls’ father is never addressed, though we eventually glean that Ivanna isn’t a widow: Perhaps, we wonder, her faith has cost her a marriage too. By zeroing in so closely and exclusively on the experiences of three women within the church, however, “Apostasy” notes with cutting precision the male-biased power structures present in so much organized religion — though in evaluating the Elders’ misogyny and morality, it draws a careful, curious line between the theology of the Witnesses and their real-world administration. Vigorous arguments among viewers from all manner of religious standpoints will flare up in the film’s wake; post-screening Q&As promise to be unusually lively.

However stances may vary on this intelligent, incendiary material, it’s hard to see many remaining unmoved by the superb performances of Kokotajlo’s three leads. Wright is most moving as she increasingly disrupts Alex’s surface of seraphic innocence with long, jagged pauses of self-doubt and half-reasoned denial. Parkinson nails a tricky transition, beginning as a hesitant mirror image to her sister before peeling off into her own woman, still more certain of who she doesn’t want to be than who she does. As the freeze-dried Ivanna, whose arc is less emphatic and thus more tragically static than that of either girl, Finneran plays stonily against all obvious angles of sympathy, to ultimately heart-stopping effect.

The actors run it like a relay, passing the narrative’s emotional burden between them. The film’s focus, thanks to Napoleon Stratogiannakis’ tight, alert editing, shifts accordingly — sometimes fluidly so, sometimes with the rude, hard ruptures that life occasionally throws us. Adam Scarth’s subtly remarkable cinematography, for its part, makes an intimate virtue of the Academy ratio, suggesting the rigid demarcations of the characters’ world as it cradles their faces in protective, alternating closeups. That sense of airlessness is compounded by the heavy custard-and-mustard color palette used throughout — significantly broken, at one point, by an ocean of gaudy turquoise in the local nail salon where Ivanna and Alex treat themselves on a day out. In “Apostasy,” such simple outside pleasures aren’t just worldly, but of another world altogether.

Film Review: 'Apostasy'

Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (New Directors), Sept. 29, 2017. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Discovery.)

 

'Apostasy': Film Review | San Sebastian 2017

By Neil Young | The Hollywood Reporter

Siobhan Finneran, Molly Wright and Sacha Parkinson lead the cast in writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo's debut, a U.K. drama premiering at the long-running festival.

Blood proves thicker than (holy) water in writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo's debut Apostasy, one of the year's strongest British films. A beautifully balanced glimpse into the world of Jehovah's Witnesses set in a humdrum corner of Manchester, it premiered at Toronto then belatedly emerged as one of the more buzzed-about New Directors contenders at San Sebastian.

Set for U.K. release via Curzon, this downbeat affair should parlay festival acclaim into niche theatrical distribution and small screen exposure. To do so it must overcome a title ("an act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith") that's both tricky to pronounce and too bald a label for the screenplay's complex contents.

Himself a former Jehovah's Witness, Kokotajlo provides an insider's glimpse into this well known but often controversial branch of Christianity. These are the famously tireless, Watchtower-toting "people who knock on the door," whose high-profile adherents have included Prince, George Benson and the Williams sisters of tennis fame.

The list of those brought up in the faith who subsequently recanted includes such diverse names as Dwight Eisenhower, Michael Jackson, Naomi Campbell, Patti Smith, the Wayans brothers and Ja Rule. The latter quit the group after his mother was "disfellowshipped" — Witness equivalent of excommunication, and a process that plays a significant role here.

The focus of Kokotajlo's ingeniously structured script shifts fluidly between a mother and her two adult daughters, examining how deeply ingrained religious beliefs can be sorely tested by circumstances. Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) is a regular attendee at "meetings" held at her local Kingdom Hall. The terminology is precise: Witnesses, critical of pagan-influenced, linguistically dubious or "false" mainstream religions such as Catholicism ("airy fairy"), eschew such terms as "service" and "church."

Ivanna has brought up Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and Alex (Molly Wright) to believe in "the truth" as professed by Witness teachings, which include the idea that Armageddon is imminent, to be followed by a "New System" in which the elect will live a blessed existence closer to God. Turning 18, Alex is an enthusiastic evangelist, learning Urdu to aid outreach activities. But the slightly older Luisa, more questioning and adventurous, drifts away from the faith after her relationship with a non-Witness results in her pregnancy. 

Luisa's subsequent disfellowship places Ivanna in a painful position; Witness rules dictate she can have only minimal contact with her distraught daughter. There is also the matter of Alex's delicate health: She has been anemic since birth, but Witness laws preclude blood transfusions even in life-threatening situations.

Kokotajlo handles some potentially melodramatic plot developments with tact and audacious restraint. Indeed, he takes the very bold step of eliding major incidents that most filmmakers would place front and center. Dividing the story into discrete chapters with cuts to black screen, or sometimes to Bible extracts presented on title cards, Kokotajlo and editor Napoleon Stratogiannakis convey the impression that we are being allowed controlled glimpses into tightly controlled lives (it's also telling that the "Elders" we see are all bald, besuited, middle-aged men).

This approach risks clinical or mannered results, but in Kokotaljo's hands the emphasis is firmly and profitably upon the characters and their interplay. Crucially, he elicits a trio of exceptional performances from his three female leads. The very experienced Finneran finds layers of nuance in Ivanna, whose external certitude masks considerable inner torment. Soap graduate Parkinson gets the juiciest lines and situations, and copes superbly with all the heavy emotional lifting; Wright is wrenchingly affecting in her auspicious big-screen debut, a role whose Jehovah-addressed internal monologues recall (in less histrionic form) Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves.

Their spiritual and physical travails are imaginatively framed by cinematographer Adam Scarth, whose sole previous feature credit is another fine current Brit indie, Daphne. Heads are often presented in the lower half of the image, counterpointed with open space (where God resides?) and the details of the confining environments in which their lives play out. Interiors are usually half-lit, with blinds and curtains drawn, shades of brown and orange contributing to the stultifying, sometimes suffocating atmosphere; composer/sound-designer Matthew Wilcock's immersive audioscapes and low-key score play their part too.

While undeniably critical in tone and ultimately sympathetic with Luisa's increasingly spiky rebelliousness, Apostasy takes appropriate care to show balanced respect for Jehovah's Witness beliefs, and speaks to much wider issues of fundamentalism, institutional repression and individual free will. It's a timely, sensitive and intelligent work of cinema for which opportunity will now surely knock.

Production companies: Frank & Lively Productions, Saddleworth Films
Cast: Siobhan Finneran, Molly Wright, Sacha Parkinson, Robert Emms
Director / Screenwriter: Daniel Kokotajlo
Producers: Marcie MacLellan, Andrea Cornwell
Cinematographer: Adam Scarth
Production designer: John Ellis
Costume designer: Lance Milligan
Editor: Napoleon Stratogiannakis
Composer: Matthew Wilcock
Casting director: Michelle Smith
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (New Directors Competition)
Sales: Cornerstone Films, London
In English (and Urdu)
No Rating, 95 minutes

London Film Festival preview: the best of new British cinema and beyond

by Jason Solomons | Financial Times

First-timers and old hands take on issues of faith, disability and prejudice in a rich crop of movies

When was the last new movement in British cinema? Not like the mockney movement of Lock, Stock imitators scraped from the bottom of the smoking barrel in the late 1990s, but a real cinematic trend heralding a flurry of new directors and a new style?

My fear is that you have to go back to the British New Wave of the 1960s to discern any such movement. A new restoration of Bryan Forbes’s The L-Shaped Room (1962), playing at the BFI London Film Festival, reminded me of that, with its dingy Notting Hill lodging house and Bafta-winning performance by Leslie Caron as the pregnant young French woman forced to have her illegitimate baby in secret.

The ’60s are also mythologised at the festival by real cockney Michael Caine, who has narrated and produced the documentary My Generation, which features a likely array of swingers and scoundrels, from David Bailey and Paul McCartney to Marianne Faithfull and Mary Quant, all looking back on the days when they broke the rules and the mould. It’s a fond compendium of memories, mini-skirts and mods, with music and archive footage one has seen and heard many times before, but director David Batty stitches it all together as nattily as a Doug Hayward suit, discerning a narrative of teenage rebellion and a flourishing of ideas until, the moral posits, drugs brought about the movement’s swift end. You can’t always get what you want, indeed.

Such re-purposed nostalgia, however, inspired me to seek a similar energy — or synergy — in the 37 new British films playing at this year’s festival. After all, it’s a British Film Institute festival, and the BFI is now one of the country’s major producers, championing and nurturing new voices. Could it be that under its umbrella and along its red carpets, a new generation of UK film-makers is emerging, with similar styles and themes in their work, shaped by our fractured times and by the joined-up thinking of a new generation of film executives?

The three directors put forward for the £50,000 IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award, which kicked off the LFF this week, are certainly distinctive. Daniel Kokotajlo’s Apostasy, which went on to win the award, is one of the rare British movies I can recall that wrestles with the issue of faith. Set among a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Manchester (Kokotajlo is himself a former Witness), it features a superb performance from actress Siobhan Finneran, a veteran of Coronation Street, Downton Abbey and Happy Valley who was also, exactly 30 years ago, Rita in Alan Clarke’s Thatcher-era sex comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

In Apostasy, Finneran plays a mother, Ivanna, torn between her religious devotion and keeping her family together in the modern world — her youngest daughter Michelle has anaemia, the treatment of which is strictly forbidden by the religion, while her eldest, Luisa, has fallen in love with a Muslim boy at art college.

The tussle between secular and sacred is beautifully nuanced, etched in the confusion on Ivanna’s face and tumbled in the cycle of meetings and stern interventions by the ruling Elders. Structurally, too, Apostasy keeps us guessing, never quite knowing which of these female characters is the centre of the story.

Also telling an outsider story is Rungano Nyoni’s remarkable I Am Not a Witch. One of the few British films selected for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it uses startling African imagery and sounds to tell the story of a young Zambian girl who is shunned by her village for being a witch and — on pain of being turned into a goat — sent to live in a commune of similarly accused and cursed women forced to wear yoke-like harnesses and become tourist attractions.

Nyoni was born in Zambia but raised in Wales and while her debut film recalls the classic African film-making style of, say, Ousmane Sembène or Abderrahmane Sissako, it has warmth and wit wrapped up in satirical anger, and a sense of mystery that suggests the fresh perspective of a hugely promising director.

Alongside these two was Beast, directed by Michael Pearce, and set on his native Jersey. A standout performance from rising star Jessie Buckley burns at the centre of the film, about a young woman brought into conflict with her family by a mysterious man accused of murder. Pearce takes great advantage of the island’s landscape and weather to mirror the emotional maelstrom and delivers a memorable, polished debut.

All three have the detachment of “outsider” movies, but being part of the LFF now brings them into the bosom of the British film establishment. Maintaining distance is difficult. Very quickly, British film-makers often become absorbed by middling costume dramas on small budgets that aren’t enough to truly propel them forward and only succeed in rubbing off the rough edges that made them distinctive in the first place.

Saul Dibb’s adaptation of RC Sherriff’s classroom classic of the trenches, Journey’s End, dodges those bullets and deserves attention for its balance of classicism with an injection of energy and timeliness. A doughty ensemble cast includes Asa Butterfield as the naive, young, eager-to-serve Raleigh, Sam Claflin as the depressed drunk Stanhope and an excellent Paul Bettany, inhabiting the role of Osborne as if he was born to play it.

Toby Jones’s cook, Mason, lends a matter-of-factness that becomes almost comic, given the impending doom, and it’s the downplayed British stoicism that gives this version its emotional heart. There’s a chilling suggestion that, in this to and fro of class and camaraderie, we have changed little in the 100 years since.

Paddy Considine’s Journeyman stars the actor himself, also directing and writing the follow-up to his tough-watch debut Tyrannosaur. Considine plays middleweight boxer Matty Burton, mentally and physically injured in his brutal final fight and now battling through rehabilitation of body and soul for the sake of his wife Emma (a powerful Jodie Whittaker) and baby daughter Mia. Hollywood would have unleashed the full string section on this one, but Considine is made of sterner stuff. The film premieres in the festival next week, so I won’t yet say too much other than, reader, I cried. Twice.

Physical struggle blended with inspirational story is a typical British trope (see Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis and Eddie Redmayne for details), and that supremely physical actor Andy Serkis duly opened the festival on Wednesday night with his own directing debut, Breathe, about Robin Cavendish and his battle with polio. You may recall Serkis himself brilliantly playing polio-sufferer and pop star Ian Dury in 2010’s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, and his sensitive direction of William Nicholson’s emotional script allows stars Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy to shine in the leads.

War, pop, defiance and eccentric humour — all British life is here in the current crop. Perhaps it’s adaptability and universality that marks British film out now, the ability to tell stories from Africa, Jersey and Manchester, to work globally and, in the US, to win Oscars, which Martin McDonagh’s firecracker screenplay for the closing night film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, must be a favourite to do.

Of course, to limit oneself to British entries at the LFF would be restrictive and possibly rather depressing. French film-maker Lea Mysius’s debut, Ava, is one of the more striking films I’ve seen, a sensuous, daring piece about a 13-year-old (Noee Abita) having nightmares about losing her sight, then running away with a dangerous gypsy boy and his big black dog while on summer holiday on one of those wild, sexy Atlantic coast beaches.

I was beguiled by German-Israeli romantic comedy The Cakemaker, in which a gay German baker arrives in Jerusalem to confront the wife of the man he secretly loved. Soon his delicious but non-kosher cakes and cookies stir her world around — and from there things then get emotionally very weird.

The best film at this LFF — and the one that should win the Official Competition when it all ends next weekend — is 120 BPM, by France’s Robin Campillo, a brilliant recreation of the formation of the Paris-based Aids activist group ACT UP in the early 1990s. It should have won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, but at least the LFF gives such astoundingly good films a second chance. It’s also now officially France’s Oscar entry, and I would fancy its chances in Hollywood next year, too.

When the films come so thickly, you start to join the dots in front of your eyes. I saw two films featuring a boy and a girl riding a motorbike with a large animal sandwiched between them: the aforementioned Ava and Caribbean-set charmer Bad Lucky Goat, a rewarding if random pick. What can it mean? Probably that I’ve seen too many movies. But that’s what festivals are for — and this one’s only just started.

4* Apostasy review – faith and fellowship in potent account of hidden world of Jehovah's Witnesses

By Peter Bradshaw | The Guardian

Daniel Kokotajlo’s debut about life among a religious community in Oldham is authentic, sensitive and subtle but has a sledgehammer narrative punch

Here is an utterly absorbing and accomplished debut feature from writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo, known before this for his well-regarded short films Myra and The Mess Hall of an Online Warrior. Apostasy combines subtlety and sensitivity with real emotional power. It also packs a sledgehammer narrative punch two-thirds in, after which life in the film carries on with eerie quietness as usual, while we, the audience, have no choice but to go into a state of shock. It shows that Kokotajlo can really do something so many new British film-makers can’t or won’t: tell a story.

The film is set among a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oldham in north-west England. Kokotajlo grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness family before leaving the faith while at college, and his writing – detached but calmly observant and sympathetic – is evidently based on a real knowledge of this culture, invisible to outsiders. He has apparently used the JW meeting hall in Oldham for the film: the building’s exterior, at any rate. I have to say that Apostasy exposes the slightly preposterous drama of Richard Eyre’s new film The Children Act, with a similar plotline about Jehovah’s Witnesses, based on the Ian McEwan novel. Apostasy is more knowledgeable, less excitable.

Siobhan Finneran plays Ivanna, a middle-aged woman firmly in the Jehovah’s Witness faith: a world in which failure to believe, or to avoid unbelievers, can get you shunned or “disfellowshipped”. She has two teenage daughters: the older Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) is at college and the younger Alex (Molly Wright) is still in school. Both live at home, of course. As to the girls’ father, Kokotajlo leaves that as the great unmentioned subject: whether alive or dead, his past behaviour and current absence is a potent, silent countercurrent to the drama.

Ivanna is concerned about the bad influences Luisa will encounter at college: people of no faith or, even worse, the wrong faith. (She dismisses Catholicism as “wishy-washy”.) Her fears are well founded. Luisa has an unbelieving boyfriend by whom she has got pregnant and her excommunication (to borrow the wishy-washy term) is inevitable. Meanwhile, delicate, shy, clever Alex is very flattered when a young man, an up-and-coming elder in the JW faith, introduces himself to her and her mother at the weekly meeting and asks them both to supper: this is Steven, played by Robert Emms. Alex sees perfectly well how the match is being made by her mother, in concert with the church, so that she will not go down the same route as her sister, and, concerned as she is for Luisa, this responsibility cements her already deeply committed attachment to the orthodoxy. Family tensions become unbearable.

The performances of Finneran, Wright and Parkinson are tremendous and all the more moving for their restraint. Kokotajlo’s direction is lucid and direct. With cinematographer Adam Scarth (who also shot the recent Daphne), he conjures an undramatic world of cloudy days and dull workplaces, kitchens, front rooms. The women’s faces are captured mostly in intimate closeup. Parkinson’s simmering anger as Luisa is almost unwatchably painful, because her rebellion is always tempered by a need not to upset her mother; Wright’s gentleness and tenderness in the role of Alex is heartbreaking.

Finneran’s Ivanna is the most mysterious of all. She is a world away from, say, Geraldine McEwan’s religious matriarch in the BBC TV adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in 1989. There is no righteous hysteria, no rage, just an utterly serene contentment with the worldview she has grown up with, and the inevitability of the “new system” that will come into being after this current world has come to an end. But Ivanna’s faith is severely tested, and there is a brilliant scene in which Kokotajlo comes in for another key closeup on Ivanna undergoing a silent dark moment of the soul in the midst of a prayer meeting. With the tiniest flinches and winces, Finneran conveys Ivanna’s suppressed turmoil, before she stumbles out to the lavatory to find the elder’s voice has been piped in there too, via the PA system. The word of God is omnipresent. Apostasy is a supremely intelligent and gripping drama.

Faith Divides Family In Deeply Moving ‘Apostasy’ [San Sebastian Review]

By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist

A piercingly humane and deeply moving glimpse into a community that for all its preaching and evangelizing remains largely a mystery to outsiders, Daniel Kokotajlo‘s debut film “Apostasy” insinuates us with sorrowful grace into the lives of a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses as they experience a series of challenges that amount to a familial Armageddon. A story told without condescension but astutely comprehending the cruelty of a faith that demands Abrahamic levels of sacrifice from its adherents, the picture is a remarkably assured and understated piece of filmmaking, showcasing not only a first-time director who has arrived fully-formed, but three exceptionally authentic performances from the women at its slow-breaking heart.

They are Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), her elder daughter Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and younger 18-year-old Alex (Molly Wright). All three are devout members of the Jehovah’s Witness community in a town in northern England, with the girls even learning Urdu in order to better communicate the doctrine of “The Truth” to the area’s Pakistani inhabitants. Their lives are outwardly ordinary: they live in a small, drably decorated, terraced house. Ivanna works in an office, Alex socializes with other young Witnesses and has a part-time gardening job, and Luisa attends university.

There is a marked contrast between the drizzly prosaic Englishness of their daily grind and the fire-and-brimstone nature of the belief system they all share, with its talk of demons, original sin and the forthcoming New System — the phrase used to describe the imminent paradise on Earth that will exist once Jehovah has destroyed the faithless. At times one can almost perceive the allure of such full-blooded beliefs, when ordinary life is so relatively colorless, an impression enhanced by DP Adam Scarth‘s delicate, low contrast photography. Exteriors are dully autumnal, and interiors usually painted in institutional neutrals; buff-colored walls undecorated with paintings or posters.

But Alex is not in robust health. The opening scene finds her talking to a well-meaning doctor about her anemia, and being reminding that the hospital “saved her life” as a baby by giving her a blood transfusion over the objections of her mother and her community’s elders. But to have someone else’s blood in her veins is a source of intense shame for the pious Alex. She even hero-worships the boys and girls who, unlike her, “died for Jehovah” by refusing medical intervention, and whose stories of sacrifice are enshrined in a special commemorative book. And so despite the doctor’s assurances of confidentiality, Alex immediately reports this conversation to Ivanna, whose cold-eyed reaction to the doctor’s warning that another transfusion might be necessary in the future is chillingly redolent of current faith vs science rhetoric: “She could die,” says the doctor. “That’s just your opinion” Ivanna replies.

It seems as though “Apostasy” is mostly going to be concerned with Alex’s coming-of-age within the confines of her faith, complete with chaste love interest in the form of a new Elder, Stephen (Robert Emms) who expresses an interest in her. But then Luisa, whose exposure to the outside world is greater and who has started to harbor doubts, announces that she is pregnant by an outsider who has no interest in coming to their meetings and converting. She is “dis-fellowshipped” and Ivanna and Alex are ordered to sever all but essential contact with her.

This and subsequent dramatic (though never melodramatic) events conspire to reshape the narrative of Kokotajlo’s film in unexpected directions, shifting the emphasis from Alex to Luisa and finally to Ivanna, with not a single false note struck between any of the actors. One particularly shocking development almost serves to subtly remind us that our own faith in cinematic narrative is as fundamental as that of a Jehovah’s Witness in the stories of the Bible, and just as much cold comfort when life fails to abide by those rules.

Kokotajlo keeps formal fireworks to a minimum, using the restrained palette, eloquently off-center framing and shallow-focus close-ups to root us in a tightly controlled naturalism. As a result a simple device, such as having Alex speak her prayers aloud while scenes play on around her, has a heightened effect: this is a world in which prayer is as tangible and real as conversation, just as articles of faith are taken as articles of fact.

The director is himself a former Jehovah’s Witness, and the film feels informed by both sadness and anger at an institution that can force such impossible choices on its believers. At a party three toddlers re-enact the Judgment of Solomon story in which the wise king threatens to divide a baby in half to determine who the real mother is. But this story does not end with a mother’s selfless love for her child seeing them reunited: here familial bonds are expected to take second place to one’s duty not just to the Almighty, but to the capricious decisions of the male Elders in interpreting His word.

In being the most rigidly indoctrinated of the three women, Ivanna eventually emerges as the film’s most tragic figure, because though all three experience some (hugely costly) measure of personal salvation, within the confines of the Kingdom Hall or by escaping it, it is the mother who makes the choice to continue living in the faith after it has taken so much from her, and after she has, at least on some level, begun to suspect The Truth may be a lie. In less skilled hands, we might despise her for her choices, but the small-scale, minor-key “Apostasy” is remarkable for gently baring its teeth in its critique of the strictures of Jehovah’s Witness dogma, but displaying nothing but the deepest compassion for those who try to live by it. [A-]

'Apostasy': San Sebastian Review

By Screen

An audacious debut from first-time British director Daniel Kokotajlo is set in the Jehovah’s Witness faith of his own childhood

 

Dir. Daniel Kokotajlo . UK. 2017. 96 mins

Little understood and often mocked, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have the spotlight turned on them in intimate British drama Apostasy – and what’s revealed is deeply troubled. Written and directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, himself a former Witness, this powerful feature debut occupies territory little charted in contemporary UK cinema, on the cusp between traditional social realism and a more European type of austere formal stylisation. Built around three intense, controlled female performances – from two young TV regulars and from Alan Clarke alumna Siobhan Finneran, so striking recently in BBC mini-series Happy Valley - this story of family in conflict with faith delivers an emotional payoff all the more telling for being so rigorously calibrated.

Finneran gives a performance all the more extraordinary because it is so restrained

Severity in visuals and content, and an audacious storytelling approach, will make this a hard theatrical sell, but Apostasy should register internationally as one of those too rare films which fly the flag for a convincing British art cinema.

The Manchester-shot drama begins by introducing us to Alex (Molly Wright), just turned 18 and a member of a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation; affected by anaemia from birth, she was given a blood transfusion as a baby, something that contradicts the church’s draconian rules on blood and the body. Alex, who is learning Urdu to convert local Muslims to the cause, lives with mother Ivana (Finneran), a devout believer, and sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), whose life at college is introducing her to feelings and possibilities outside the strict circle the girls have always known.

When Luisa announces that she is pregnant, the Elders of her community declare her “disfellowshipped”, barred from the faith, with her mother and sister forbidden to have contact with her. Meanwhile Alex is courted in shy, formal style by Steven (Robert Emms), a soft-spoken young Elder from London.

Two dramatic strategies make Apostasy particularly audacious – one is a sudden left turn that breaks with narrative convention (especially with the conventions of often hidebound British drama), the other is the device of having Alex narrate events and her thoughts not in voice-off but directly on screen, her commentary integrated into the action. The film, though shot in the kind of locales familiar from so much school-of-Loach drama, derives a fresh visual feel from Adam Scarth’s rigorously composed Academy ratio lensing, intensifying street scenes, claustrophobic interiors and intimate close-ups alike.

With a palette that emphasises browns and beiges to suggest a constrained, airless world, the film feels strikingly European in flavour: it’s close to two German dramas about young women and religious extremity, 2006’s Requiem(stylistically) and 2014’s Stations of the Cross (thematically). In domestic terms, its affinities are with that handful of directors that push UK realism towards its artistically challenging edges – e.g. Lawlor and Molloy (Helen) and Duane Hopkins (Better Things).

Wright and Parkinson play superbly against each other as two young women reacting differently to the same upbringing, one with cautious obedience, the other with a gradually welling defiance. As their mother, tested by the draconian demands of her belief, Finneran gives a performance all the more extraordinary because it is so restrained, at times on the verge of emotional inscrutability. So much hinges on her ability to make Ivana sympathetic when the character could easily come across as a fanatic – and Ivana’s reasonable-seeming invocation of her credo delivers all the more of an emotional wrench because of Finneran’s composure.

Robert Emms’s sympathetic but doctrinaire suitor offers strong support, as does James Quinn, as an elder whose avuncular manner only highlights the tyranny he represents.

Occasional solemn theological discussions are worked effectively into the drama. The only false note is the use of a too-obviously kitsch American voice-over on a Witnesses video; more effective is the interspersing of title cards with quotations from the faith’s scriptures. Kokotajlo’s own background gives an unmistakable ring of authenticity to a film that not only explores its individual drama in nuanced depth, but also offers broader insights into the hazards of unconditional religious convictions (and, by implication, political ones too).

Daniel Kokotajlo, writer-director Apostasy, wins £50k IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary

By BFI

The award was the culmination of an evening during which Tilda Swinton joined stars gathered to celebrate UK film at the BFI LUMINOUS fundraising gala, with over £460k raised.

Stars from the UK’s film and television industries gathered tonight in support of BFI LUMINOUS, the biennial fundraising gala presented in partnership with IWC Schaffhausen. LUMINOUS’ special guest speaker Oscar-winning actor Tilda Swinton was among a host of luminaries including Sir Patrick Stewart, Tom Hiddleston, Florence Pugh, Hugh Laurie, Tuppence Middleton, David Harewood, Romola Garai, Jeremy Irons, Michelle Dockery, Stephen Fry, Baz Luhrmann, Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam, Sarah Gavron, Joanne Froggatt, Joan Collins, Lord and Lady Fellowes, Gemma Chan, Katherine Waterston and Jason Watkins, who came together to celebrate UK film, raise money to ensure young people from all backgrounds can engage with the medium, and champion new talent and emerging filmmaking voices.

The evening culminated in the award of the coveted IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award in Association with the BFI to Daniel Kokotajlo, writer/director of Apostasy, one of the UK’s most exciting new filmmaking talents. At £50,000, it is unique and one of the largest prizes for the arts in the UK, offering talent at the beginning of their career the gift of time, allowing them to grow and develop.

A charity with education at its heart, the BFI is committed to embedding the love of film for the next generation, and tonight the industry congregated to celebrate and raise money to create new opportunities for young people. By bidding on exclusive, bespoke and money-can’t-buy lots, guests at LUMINOUS raised £460k for BACK THE FUTURE, the BFI’s new year-long campaign raising vital funds for BFI Education to inspire young people from all backgrounds and from all over the UK to give them the chance to grow and succeed through film.

LUMINOUS Guest Speaker Tilda Swinton said:

“The BFI is not about profit motive or wealth creation. It’s about the voices of our next generations, inspired and encouraged and informed by ours and those before us – now over a hundred years’ worth of encouragement – to film the world around them, weave the shapes of their narratives and what they see through their own eyes, standing in their own shoes. The BFI holds both the past and the future in the same gesture of reverence and respect: films getting made by inspired individuals need company, need context, need the embrace of knowing just how many ways there are to screw in a light bulb, skin a cat or prepare for battle. The archive builds the house: our filmmakers – past, present and future – light it up.”

Daniel Kokotajlo was presented the Bursary by IWC Schaffhausen CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr, who selected the winning filmmaker with Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper and Amanda Nevill, CEO of the BFI. He was shortlisted alongside Rungano Nyoni writer/director of I Am Not a Witch and Michael Pearce writer/director of Beast. The three filmmakers were selected from the UK-based directors or writer/directors with their first or second film in Official Selection at the BFI London Film Festival in Partnership with American Express®.

The Jury for the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award in Association with the BFI commented:

“We were unanimously moved by Daniel’s compelling and extraordinarily powerful debut Apostasy. We were very impressed with his delicate approach and skill at drawing in the audience and creating a subtle but incredibly affecting piece of work. We were also struck by his process – his commitment to research, lengthy workshopping and collaboration with his performers – something we felt that he would be able to develop with the benefit of this Bursary. We are excited to see where Daniel goes next and how this extremely distinctive and exciting new British filmmaking voice evolves.”

Daniel Kokotajlo, writer/director of Apostasy comments:

“Thank you for selecting the film; I come from a place where it would be a dream to win such an award and stand here. I know what it feels like to have very little, I know what it feels like when people are not listening, it’s been a difficult journey for me on Apostasy but once I worked out what I wanted to say then people did start to listen. A big thanks to the BFI and IWC for believing in me and for seeing that I have some talent.”

The star-studded gala was held in the Gothic splendour of London’s Guildhall, on the eve of the BFI London Film Festival. Josh Berger, BFI Chair and President & Managing Director, Warner Bros. Entertainment UK, Ireland and Spain, and Amanda Nevill hosted the evening, with Jonathan Ross returning as Master of Ceremonies. Guests were also treated to an intimate live performance by Birdy.

LUMINOUS’ charity auction was led by renowned Sotheby’s auctioneer Lord Dalmeny, comprising over 40 extraordinary lots including a personal tour with Andy Serkis of his Imaginarium Studio, an exclusive book reading by David Walliams, a private tour of the BFI National Archive with Martin Scorsese’s Oscar®-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, a set visit to BBC Drama A Very English Scandal starring Hugh Grant and a unique and limited edition IWC Pilot’s Watch Spitfire Chronograph Edition ‘BFI London Film Festival’. Ahead of the event, the lots were open to bidders all over the world online. The BACK THE FUTURE campaign continues throughout the year; donations can be made at www.bfi.org.uk/backthefuture.

LUMINOUS guest and actor Sir Patrick Stewart, comments:

“I’m here celebrating movies, the creative side of filmmaking and the contenders for this year’s Bursary. It is a brilliant innovation, its takes the pressure off people who are maybe developing their next project – developing a film is hard and mostly unpaid, so this Bursary is invaluable.”

LUMINOUS guest and actor David Harewood, commented:

“It’s important for young filmmakers to get support. We have such incredible young talent in this country, with support from the BFI tis exciting for this emerging talent to show their work and rub shoulders with such luminaries from the filmmaking world here at LUMINOUS.”

BFI Chair, Josh Berger CBE, said:

“We are incredibly grateful for the generosity of our Headline Partner IWC Schaffhausen, without whom LUMINOUS nor the IWC Filmmaker Bursary would be possible. One of the most critical functions of the BFI is to safeguard and expand the future of our industry, and this event helps us achieve that by raising vital funds to nurture and inspire the next generation and to support filmmakers in telling the stories that matter to them.”

CEO of the BFI, Amanda Nevill CBE, comments:

“Once again I am utterly blown away by the incredible support tonight from so many people in our industry who, like us, care passionately about inspiring and educating the next generation about film. We all agree that everyone, no matter where they live, whatever their background, should have the opportunity to learn about and engage with film. We owe a huge debt of thanks to all our guests and online bidders for helping us #BacktheFuture, and are equally grateful to our wonderful partners at IWC Schaffhausen for their ongoing partnership and our second Filmmaker Bursary Award. Choosing a winner was a virtually impossible task but Daniel Kokotajlo is an extraordinary new creative talent with a sensitive approach to filmmaking that shows a maturity beyond his years.”

CEO of IWC Schaffhausen Christoph Grainger-Herr comments:

“With his debut APOSTASY Daniel Kokotajlo has created an immensely powerful, yet restrained and strikingly thought-provoking film. Apostasy portrays the philosophical struggle between religious and social norms on the one hand and the reality of modern life on the other. Through his work Daniel raises important questions at the heart of our society. We are proud to present the IWC Filmmaker Bursary Award in Association with the BFI to a winner who adds such originality and truth to his storytelling.”

Three of the UK’s most compelling new filmmakers shortlisted for UK film’s biggest bursary

By BFI

In contention for the £50k IWC Filmmaker Bursary Award in Association with the BFI are Daniel Kokotajlo (Apostasy), Rungano Nyoni (I Am Not a Witch) and Michael Pearce (Beast).

At an event this morning at BFI Southbank, the BFI and IWC Schaffhausen revealed the three finalists vying for the second IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award in Association with the BFI – at £50,000, it is the most significant bursary of its kind in the UK film industry. Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper will join Amanda Nevill, CEO of the BFI and Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, to select the winner, which will be announced at LUMINOUS, the BFI’s biennial fundraising gala on 3 October 2017.

The Bursary is presented in recognition of outstanding British talent and is designed to support a writer and/or director at the beginning of their career, bringing them the financial stability and time needed to develop their creativity and focus on future projects without the pressure of deadlines or the distraction of taking paid work – a precious and extremely rare opportunity for a filmmaker.

Amanda Nevill, CEO of the BFI comments:

“This extraordinary partnership and the generosity of our friends at IWC Schaffhausen is enabling us to support exciting up-and-coming British talent in a truly dynamic way. We have an incredible shortlist of filmmakers with hugely different styles and who demonstrate great strength in their creative voices. As a snapshot of UK emerging talent, it is a very vibrant and encouraging picture, but for us as a judging panel, it will be a very difficult decision!”

Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, comments:

“Our priority is the support of up-and-coming filmmakers and their projects. Being storytellers ourselves, we deeply appreciate the creativity and passion that the talented directors and writers selected as the finalists for the second Filmmaker Bursary Award have invested into their work to enchant and captivate their audiences.”

A panel of senior industry figures – Rose Garnett, Director of BBC Films, Sam Lavender, Deputy of Creative at Film4, Ben Roberts, Director of the BFI Film Fund, Clare Stewart, Director of the BFI London Film Festival, and Gaylene Gould, BFI Southbank’s Head of Cinemas and Events – selected the shortlist of filmmakers. To be eligible for the Bursary Award a writer and/or director must be UK-based and have their first or second film in Official Selection at the BFI London Film Festival in Partnership with American Express®. The high calibre of shortlisted applicants is testament to the creativity alive in British independent filmmaking with the three finalists showing a diversity of voices and presenting original work with a distinctive tone.

Ben Roberts, Director of the BFI Film Fund said:

“It’s been another strong year for British film debuts and Rungano, Dan and Michael embody the ambition, the intelligence and the virtuosity that we are seeing more and more amongst a generation of emerging filmmakers. Congratulations to all them, and all the filmmakers debuting at LFF.”

Clare Stewart, Director of the BFI London Film Festival said:

“It is not only the Bursary itself that is of significant value, IWC have created an opportunity for the LFF to play a direct role in bringing all the new and emerging UK-based talent with films in the Festival to the attention of key industry decision-makers through the shortlisting process. I thank our partners at IWC, the shortlisting panel and I warmly congratulate the nominated filmmakers.”

The final three in contention for the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award in Association with the BFI are:

Daniel Kokotajlo
Writer, director of Apostasy, screening in the LFF’s First Feature Competition (UK Premiere)

iwc-bursary-apostasy.jpg

Daniel Kokotajlo is a self-taught film director and writer. Born and raised by a Ukrainian-Italian family in Manchester, UK. His debut feature film, Apostasy, is inspired by his own experiences growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness in the north of England while attending art college. He learnt how to use a camera working as a cameraman at his local greyhound stadium. He is a recent alumnus of the Biennale Cinema College, EIFF Talent Lab, and Creative England’s Talent Centre. He was selected as a Star of Tomorrow by Screen International in 2015.

Daniel Kokotajlo said:

“I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to make my first feature film, Apostasy, and to have been shortlisted for the IWC Filmmaker Bursary Award. The journey to this point hasn’t been easy for me and that’s why this Award would be a real help – it’s a genuine means to sustain filmmakers from working class backgrounds as we continue to hone new, exciting stories.”

Rungano Nyoni
Writer, director of I Am Not a Witch, screening in the LFF’s First Feature Competition (UK Premiere)

iwc-bursary-i-am-not-a-witch.jpg

Rungano Nyoni is a self-taught writer/director born in Lusaka, Zambia and grew up in Wales, UK. Her short films have featured in over 400 film festivals. In 2009 she won a BAFTA Cymru for her short film The List. Her subsequent film Mwansa The Great was funded by UK Film Council and Focus Features (USA). It was selected at over 100 International Film Festivals, awarded over 20 prizes and nominated for a BAFTA in 2012. In 2015 Rungano was selected for the Nordic Factory, a Finnish/Danish Co Production where she co-directed Listen. Listen was nominated for a European Film Award 2015 and won the Best Short Narrative Prize at Tribeca Film Festival. Rungano’s debut feature, I Am Not a Witch, premiered this year at Cannes Film Festival in the Directors Fortnight Sidebar, and also screened at TIFF ahead of its LFF premiere.

Rungano Nyoni said:

“It’s an honour to be nominated. It’s just so rare to have the opportunity to develop your project under your own terms without having to hustle.”

Michael Pearce
Writer, director of Beast, screening in the LFF’s First Feature Competition (European Premiere)

iwc-bursary-beast.jpg

Michael’s first feature film, Beast, premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival in the Platform section. In 2014 Michael was selected to be part of Guiding Lights scheme and was mentored by James Marsh. In 2013 Michael made his first TV drama, Henry, through Channel 4’s Coming Up scheme and made the short, Keeping Up with the Joneses, through the BFI’s 2012 Shorts scheme, the film was nominated at the 2014 BAFTA and BIFA awards. In 2011 Michael was one of Screen International’s UK Stars of Tomorrow and his feature script was selected to be developed through the Torino Film Lab Script & Pitch Workshops and was then selected to be part of 2012 Frame Work programme. Previously to that Michael’s short film, Rite, was nominated at the 2011 BAFTAs and BIFAs, played at over 40 international film festivals.

Michael Pearce said:

“Finding, developing and making that second film is one of the most difficult and significant career challenges a director will face. The IWC Bursary creates an opportunity where a filmmaker can forage for that 2nd film without any immediate financial pressures to work on projects they’re not passionate about. It’s a rare gift, protecting the filmmaker and endowing them with the freedom to continue dreaming in their own unique way.”

In a unique partnership that unlocks direct philanthropic support for UK creativity and the future of British film, the Filmmaker Bursary Award was created by Swiss luxury watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen and the BFI. IWC Schaffhausen has been a sponsor of the BFI and the Official Time Partner of the BFI London Film Festival since 2014.

Hope Dickson Leach won the inaugural Bursary last year when her debut feature The Levelling had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival. The film went on to be released in May 2017 to great critical acclaim. Explaining the extraordinary opportunity the Bursary provided her with, Dickson Leach said:

“This last year has been a wild ride. Promoting my debut film as well as exploring future opportunities is all-encompassing, and having the time to invest in this has truly been a privilege. Winning the Bursary not only made it possible for me to make the most of this crucial moment in my career, but also raised my profile. Over the year I have worked hard to find the projects that most excite me and will provide that important step forward for my second feature, and feel lucky to be developing several as a result. I have also had time to work with my colleagues at Raising Films, the campaigning initiative I co-founded for parents and carers in the film industry. The Bursary is a unique opportunity for British filmmakers – the gift of time is surely the most precious thing any filmmaker can receive, and I can say without doubt that it has allowed me to make the most of this critical year in my life.”

Toronto: Daniel Kokotajlo talks Jehovah’s Witness drama ‘Apostasy’

By Wendy Mitchell | Screen

Manchester-born, London-based writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo makes his feature directorial debut with Apostasy, which is receiving its world premiere in Toronto’s Discovery programme.

The story, set in Oldham, Greater Manchester, is about a devout Jehovah’s Witness who commits a transgression, forcing her mother and sister to persuade her to return to the faith or shun her completely.

While the storyline isn’t exactly autobiographical, it comes from a world Kokotajlo knows intimately, as he grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness family.

Kokotajlo, a 2015 Screen International Star of Tomorrow, has previously directed shorts include The Mess Hall Of An Online Warrior (which screened at SXSW) and Myra (which was longlisted for a BAFTA).

Marcie Maclellan and Andrea Cornwell (Suite Francaise) produce the film, which was made through the iFeatures low-budget filmmaking scheme, and backers are Creative England, BBC Films, BFI and Oldgarth Media. Executive producers are Christopher Moll, Steve Jenkins, Lizzie Francke, Jim Reeve and Christopher Granier-Deferre.

Apostasy premieres at TIFF on September 8 and Cornerstone Films is handling international sales. After Toronto, the film screens in San Sebastian’s New Directors Competition and in BFI London Film Festival’s First Feature Competition.

You used to do music and visual art, so how did you make the leap to film?

I was making hip-hop records when I was about 21, I was a Bible-bashing B-boy. Around this time, I discovered people like Mike Leigh and Karel Reisz existed. I then studied film in my mid-20s, at the MA screenwriting programme at the University of Westminster. I couldn’t afford to pay for it all at once so I studied part time and was selling paintings and juggling two jobs to pay for school.

Apostasy is about a young woman who leaves the Jehovah’s Witness faith. When did you leave the faith?

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. I still went to Kingdom Hall [place of worship used by Jehovah’s Witnesses] all through uni, but I kept it quiet. I wanted to leave but that religious guilt was there and I couldn’t find a way to get out of it comfortably. It wasn’t until I moved away from my hometown that I stopped going. 

How will Witnesses react to Apostasy?

I suspect they will ignore the film. Even the idea of making this film is controversial. The word ‘apostasy’ will raise an eyebrow within the Witnesses. But I’m hoping that if people in the faith watch this film and give it time, they will see it’s not critical of the Witnesses – it’s a film about people who stand up for what they believe in. Some ex-Witnesses I’ve spoken to are very angry about that part of their lives but I see it a bit more objectively.

How did you cast the film?

I made a conscious choice to focus on working actors in the northwest, to show a film audience what these actors can do. We saw hundreds of people. It was about the right look and right feel and I didn’t want them to be odd looking, they needed to be relatable, honest people. With Siobhan [Finneran], I was a huge fan of hers from Rita, Sue And Bob Too and Happy Valley. [The mother] was a complex, tricky character and Siobhan understood straight away the humanity that the role needed. Even though she’s just turned 18, [the younger daughter] Alex couldn’t be too childlike, she had to be determined and strong willed; Molly [Wright] had that. For the older sister Luisa, we needed to find someone who was naturally playful and impulsive and Sacha [Parkinson] seemed to have that quality.

How did you prepare them to play their characters?

I had a few weeks with the actors. We had a private space where we sat together and chatted about it all, just so I could get across the logic of the Witnesses. It’s hard for secular people to understand that stuff, that you have to act in a way that goes against your natural instincts. Part of rehearsals was also focused on making these people human beings.

How did taking part in iFeatures help you on the film?

They’ve been very supportive, they gave me time and space to work on the script. I made a documentary at the beginning of the process about my life, so they could see the power and how personal the story was to me. They greenlit Apostasy before the script was totally in shape which was a real boost of confidence for me.

Without spoiling the ending, did the film always have to end this way?

I’ve always been interested in how far people will go for their faith or what they truly believe in. It felt like a natural progression, from what Alex deals with to what happens at the end. It’s the eternal versus the here and now. I hope people can empathise with the situation that the family are in. This is just one example of fundamentalism and what kind of hold it can have on people.