Cultural Bulletin
Cultural Bulletin is a quarterly magazine that provides an international view of creative work. We look to film, music, design and art as signifiers of our cultural moment.

In Review: Apostasy

Director: Daniel Kokotajlo



Daniel Kokotajlo’s debut is an incredibly detailed and affecting look at life growing up within a strict Christian denomination in Manchester in the context of a family torn by faith and doubt. We are presented with the tightrope they struggle to navigate between choosing to follow their teachings as a guide to ultimate paradise, and basic human instinct to accept and protect oneself and family. A Witness himself for 10 years, Kokotajlo has drawn upon his own experience to present the complications within this fictional family that feel subtly raw and honest. 

Set in Oldham, Manchester, Alex (Molly Wright) is turning 18 within a family who are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. She is vibrant and eager, learning Urdu to widen her ability to minister. The teaching she reiterates is fear inducing, ‘God is going to restore earth back to paradise and if we refuse to listen we will be removed. This whole world is in the power of Satan.’ Armageddon is coming, and where will you be spiritually when it does?

As the girls grow older, the outside world begins to creep in and alter their lives. Her older sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) falls pregnant and is disfellowshipped with little sympathy. Alex suffers from a serious condition that has made her anaemic, and as a child, she was given a blood transfusion against the protests of the elders. ‘To mess with one's body is the worst sin’. 

Her mother sees that she should spend time with the faithful brother Stephen. He epitomises how devotion is rewarded by the fellowship, and ultimately by God. The fallout of Alex’s devotion to her religion leads to a turn of events that explore the psychology of those who deeply believe in a teaching that asks for sacrifice in order to stay on the right path to the New System, a life after this one. 

Simply captured, the shots are close, amplifying the claustrophobia of the bubble they live in. Our infuriation is reinforced. Luisa tries to question why she should be punished. She is answered with well-remembered verses. 

Sacha Parkinson is brilliant in showing her struggle between her faith and what she feels is true. Fascinatingly detailed is the mother, husbandless, ruthless in her faith. An understated performance from Siobhan Finneran shows a woman devout enough to believe the word of her religion is the way to make the individuals in her family happy and justify the pain they may feel. Although initially unsympathetic, Finneran shows small glimpses that Ivanna is torn to give her children the life she believes they deserve within the confines of her religions teachings, (that they should earn Gods love, that it takes strength to live up to His standards), and immediate maternal instinct to protect them from harm and accept them wholly as they are. Which path is the right path? ‘In a few hundred years we probably won’t remember any of this,' she states.

The film asks through her that within such a strict religion, is one able to define happiness and does it exist as something important and necessary. The closer she stays to her teachings, the quicker pain can be justified. Her blankness overcomes her as her decisions become harder. This film seems to come from someone who has experienced the damage religious conditioning can cause, psychologically and emotionally.

Will there ever even be the capacity to regret? This film was a fascinating watch, questioning if human instinct is strong enough to psychologically compete with religious conditioning. SC