Daniel Kokotajlo’s debut Apostasy is a remarkable and authentic mediation on religion, belief, family and loss. Single mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) runs a matriarchal household, raising her two adult daughters Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and Alex (Molly Wright) in strict accordance with her devout Jehovah’s Witness beliefs.
The daughters seem as pious as their mother, particularly the younger Alex who is not yet 18, but college-attending Luisa appears to harbour some doubts, and ends up becoming pregnant by someone not of their faith. As a result of this, Luisa is “disfellowshipped” (excommunicated) by the Elders (being patriarchal, of course they are all middle-aged men) at the local Jehovah’s Witness church, and Ivanna is instructed to cut all ties with her; this tests her, and the family, to their limits.
Himself a former Jehovah’s Witness, Kokotajlo’s story is sensitive and intelligent, whilst delicately critiquing religious fundamentalist rules and punishments. We are afforded an intimate insight into devout belief, and how deeply important kinship within this community is. Apostasy seems at times an observational documentary – the camera a respectful fly on the wall – and the intensity of the family conflict, and their constant fear of God’s wrath, feels visceral and claustrophobic.
With sympathy towards the believers, Kokotajlo treats the subject matter with sensitivity and intelligence, and offers restraint within the melodrama. The suffocating, oppressive atmosphere is intensified by the muted tones of the cinematography (Adam Scarth), portraying the repetitiveness of day-to-day life involving prayer, study, and trying to convert people on the street, but this is lightened with a few comedic moments and the introduction of a potential religious pairing, Steven (Robert Emms), for Alex.
Even love and loss are viewed through the lens of faith, and the deeply ingrained religious beliefs are what seems to solely define these people; with gentleness and tact, Kokotajlo examines if this can ever change. The performances by the lead cast are exceptional, and alongside a rich script, and Kokotajlo’s almost philosophical directorial approach, Apostasy is an incredibly moving drama offering an authentic glimpse into the Jehovah’s Witness community.
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack