The difficulty of breaking with strict or fundamentalist religious faiths is canvassed in recent movies like Disobedience and One of Us.
The British drama Apostasy, shown as part of the recent 2018 New Zealand International Film Festival, examines the crisis of faith that arises in a devout English Jehovah’s Witness family when the younger of two daughters develops an illness that requires a blood transfusion, which the church forbids.
The situation becomes more complicated when the older daughter enters a relationship with a Muslim boyfriend, thus raising the risk that she will be “disfellowshipped” – in other words, shunned by family and community.
Writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo knows his subject matter, having been raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. The Guardian described the low-budget Apostasy (it was made in three weeks for £500,000) as “an edifying slow burn of a debut [that] looks at a trio of women each wrestling with the rules and restrictions of their religion”.
Imtiaz Shams, co-founder of Faith to Faithless, says an increasing number of defectors from Christian religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Exclusive Brethren – whose practice of shunning ex-members has aroused controversy in New Zealand – are turning to his organisation for support.
Faith to Faithless also helps refugees from Hasidic Judaism, three of whom feature in the 2017 Netflix documentary One of Us. The three face ostracism, isolation and harassment after leaving deeply conservative and socially reclusive Hasidic communities in Brooklyn, New York.
One tells of having been brought up in total isolation from the real world. Discovering Wikipedia was a revelation – “a gift from God”. Although the three protagonists have turned their backs on their religion, giving up their culture – the only one they have known – isn’t easy.
Slightly less isolating, but still demanding strict conformity, is the variant of Judaism examined in the 2017 British film Disobedience.
Set in North London, Disobedience stars Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as women from an Orthodox Jewish community – one a renegade, the other still compliant with the stifling dictates of her religion – who risk ostracism by rekindling an illicit relationship. The New York Times said the film invited secular viewers to “intimately witness the agony of faith”.
This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.