Programme Notes: Apostasy

Please note that this article contains spoilers.

 Even though not autobiographical, Daniel Kokotajlo’s gripping and unapologetic debut Apostasy (2017) is clearly inspired by a community of which he used to be a member. Just like Luisa (played by Sacha Parkinson), the Manchester-born director who grew up in a Jehovah’s family began to question his religion when he went to college. As Kokotajlo himself says, he was then introduced to a new concept of thinking for himself and having an opinion of his own - something completely opposite to his experience as a Witness, which often meant “reaffirming the text [and] group-think” and was far from “encouraging independent thought”.[1] Same as for Luisa, leaving the organisation was not easy and required repressing a deeply rooted religious guilt.[2] 

Apostasy tells the story of an all-female Jehovah’s Witness family in the Greater Manchester – Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), a devoted mother who sees the outside world as a distraction waiting to put “evil ideas” in her daughters’ heads; Luisa, the eldest daughter who after starting college begins to see flaws in the religion she has been brought up in; and Alex (Molly Wright), an extremely anaemic 18-year-old, who has to live with an on-going feeling of guilt and uncleanliness – as a baby, she was given a blood transfusion without her mother’s permission. The family’s beliefs firmly object to such procedures since Jehovah’s Witnesses see blood as a representation of life and Alex’s devotion seems to be constantly put down by her shameful past.[3] Her medical condition becomes something that defines Alex, something she feels she has to disclose to the elder Steven (Robert Emms) before he even considers pursuing their awkward relationship further. As for the girls’ father, there is no indication of him being present in their lives. If he did pass away, strangely enough his name is not mentioned by any of the women once. This silence speaks volumes as the viewer can probably assume that his attitude to religion must have been unsatisfactory for the family to speak about him let alone allow the girls to see their father.

Kokotajlo does not see his film as a critique of Witnesses. Far from that – the director explains that Apostasy is a film about “people who stand up for what they believe in”.[4] He is interested in seeing how far one will go for their religion – something we can firmly see in the characters of Ivanna and Alex. This complete devotion is even further affirmed when we realise that virtually all the conversations in the film concern Jehovah’s beliefs or characters’ conduct in relation to the organisation’s rules.

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The character of Ivanna is especially memorable. Her zealous beliefs do not liberate her as she would perhaps want to see them. Instead, they build walls not only between her and the non-Jehovah’s world but, more importantly, they leave her alone and torn between her religion and her daughter. When she loses Alex, we see Ivanna desperately trying to help Luisa find her way back to the organisation. It is no doubt done out of worry about her faith but one cannot deny there is a certain selfishness to it. Ever since her youngest daughter died, the woman has been incredibly lonely. According to Jehovah’s rules, rigorously monitored in Kokotajlo’s debut by three male elders, there can be no contact with a “wrong doer” who has been excommunicated from the organisation. That is why Ivanna is so very keen to have Luisa admitted back to the church and is desperate to spend time with her, even though the Witnesses are not very pleased about it. There is no denying that motherly love makes her break the rules and help her daughter, a single-mother-to-be, but it is heart-breaking to see that elder Steven’s words encouraging his congregation to “put Jesus first, even before [your] family” are so very resonating for Ivanna. The very last words she utters on screen make the film even more difficult to watch – she had lost her daughter because her religion has prevented her from helping Alex but she does not see that. In her view, her new granddaughter needs to be “saved” from the non-Jehovah’s world by introducing her to the very religion that has left her practically childless – at least in the view of her congregation.

Even though, as Steven says, Luisa “likes to voice her own opinions too much”, Alex is nothing like her sister. The only glimpse of her thoughts and ideas can be seen in a form of inner monologue sporadically appearing on screen – and they are indeed firmly rooted in the Jehovah’s beliefs. She is one of the most devoted members of her church, almost as if she is trying to believe even harder, make even bigger difference, in order to repent for the blood transfusion from her childhood. The difference between two sisters is especially noticeable in the car scene. It seems like Alex feels very uncomfortable around “worldly” people and when asked what she does for living she very briefly and unemotionally mentions her gardening job only to proceed with a more detailed account of her life as a sister.

 Examining how difficult it is to look at one’s religion and its regime, Apostasy is a hard but a very important watch. Even though we hear from Ivanna herself that “no one knows how God will judge them”, it is incredibly hard for her and the other characters to stop and think about the consequences of the religious laws they obey. One of the Bible quotes appearing on screen affirms us that “Jehovah is love” but in Apostasy it is the elders themselves who asses the level of love and devotion of their fellow believers. Their omnipresent voice – appearing even in the church bathroom – makes it even more difficult to break free and think for oneself.

Alicja Tokarska
Freelance translator and writer

July 2018 

[1] Wendy Mitchell, Toronto: Daniel Kokotajlo talks Jehovah’s Witness Drama ‘Apostasy’, Screen Daily, 8 September 2017,

[2] Mitchell, Toronto: Daniel Kokotajlo talks…

[3] Why Don’t Jehovah’s Witnesses Accept Blood Transfusions?, Jehovah’s Witnesses,

[4] Mitchell, Toronto: Daniel Kokotajlo talks…

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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