'Apostasy' is a tragic and compassionate portrayal of life as a Jehovah's Witness

Other | Tuesday 31st July 2018 | David

Director Daniel Kokotajlo is a former Jehovah’s Witness whose feature debut offers a tense, ultimately tragic but always compassionate depiction of this community’s strict and isolated way of living.

While the story itself is fictional, Apostasy draws on real life cases as it explores the conflicts and relationships of a family raised in the religion. Take the teenage Alex who’s in need of a blood transfusion but willingly rejects this treatment, since the practice is prohibited by her faith. Her older sister Luisa, meanwhile, is far more sceptical of their denomination’s beliefs, and her defiant behaviour eventually gets her kicked out of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, meaning that her family are obligated to keep all contact with her to a minimum. Throughout the drama, the girls’ mother Ivanna becomes increasingly torn between the rules of her faith and the need to care for her children.

Ironically, if there’s one thing that feels missing from Kokotajlo’s film, it’s a spiritual connection. Given the important role that each character’s relationship with God plays in their day-to-day lives, Apostasy seems strangely reluctant to explore this emotional terrain and its implications. Kokotajlo’s script proves effective in fleshing out the various laws and methods of manipulation within this religious community, but without much insight on the subject of personal faith, we can only halfway understand what motivates these characters and their sometimes shocking actions.


But if the film largely shies away from otherworldly matters, it nonetheless succeeds as a grounded drama about a family constrained by the rules of their culture. Kokotajlo shows himself to be a quietly commanding director whose understated style matches the simple, indulgence-free lives of his emotionally repressed characters. The cast, meanwhile, prove more than up to the task of humanising characters who are often dismissed as religious weirdoes by society.

Chances are, you’ll disagree with a lot of the choices that these people make. For most viewers, this will be a film that invites outrage from the start, and yet Ivanna and her family earn our sympathy far more than they earn our judgement. As a man who has witnessed this lifestyle from both the inside and the outside, Kokotajlo offers a balanced and compelling perspective of the troubled lives and well-meaning people behind the condescending stereotypes and sensationalistic headlines.