Writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. By intimately exploring a tragic family drama in his debut feature film he voices his frustrations with the Witnesses that led him to renounce his faith in early adulthood.
From the outset no effort is spared to educate viewers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs. A birthday card is rejected; the prospect of missing weekly church meetings is frowned upon; the aim is to usher in God’s New System; there are concerns of demons in the attic. Kokotajlo even goes as far to create a unique aspect ratio to draw attention to the sense of claustrophobia that he alleges the church forces upon the actions and thoughts of its members.
But most importantly for the plot, the first scene establishes that Jehovah’s Witnesses forbid blood transfusions; the young protagonist Alex (Molly Wright), an anaemic, must reject the offer of blood from her doctor. Alex is a committed member of the faith and is entirely moulded in the image of her staunchly religious mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran). The same cannot be said for her older sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), whose secular transgressions become the focus of the plot.
Apostasy isn’t an angry backlash by its maker towards the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s far too well-crafted to be considered an outright attack. Although the perspectives of all three leading women are given space, choosing to focus primarily on Alex’s viewpoint allows Kokotajlo to put forward an honest insight to the grievances that led to his very own apostasy.
Nor is this a balanced film; the Jehovah’s Witness community, including Ivanna, is very often vilified. The elders, a group of men who make important decisions for the local congregation of Witnesses, become the chief antagonists. It paints a powerful picture when an emotional Luisa is sat across from three elders, waiting for them to decide her future within the church. And these are the very same elders that denied her mother and sister to associate themselves with Luisa after her infractions come to light.
Apostasy features no dramatic courtroom scenes or grand spectacles and is better for it; you can tell this is an insider’s story. Kokotajlo’s own struggle with committing to his church can be palpably felt in the film’s dynamics between mother, daughter and church.
This is a strong debut feature that allows viewers to look through a window they would usually overlook, and the use of actively voicing characters’ inner thoughts was a bold move that provided an intimacy and sleekness a voiceover narration couldn’t have rivalled. More films of this calibre would be much appreciated.