Filmmaker Penny Lane asks Sundance audiences if they will ‘Hail Satan?’
The name Satan conjures up the image of an oppressor; a demon who seduces members of the human race to sin; the endpoint of evil itself.
In filmmaker Penny Lane’s new documentary “Hail Satan?”, which is part of the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary program, Lucifer emerges as a symbol of hope, acceptance and equality opposed to American Christian conservatism.
In the film, Lane recounts the history of the Satanic Temple, an atheistic political activist group based in Salem, Massachusetts, from its origins six years ago to its current fight for religious freedom and racial equality in the United States.
It culminates with a rally in support of the First Amendment organized by the temple. The rally resulted in the temporary display of a statue of Baphomet across from a monument to the Ten Commandments at the Arkansas capitol steps in Little Rock.
Lane, who has no religious affiliation, said she needed to release “Hail Satan?” at Sundance this year.
“We are in – and I think everyone agrees – a dark time in our country,” she said. “I think people will be surprised, even if they don’t relate to the Satanists religiously, how inspiring it feels to witness a group of people with no power, money or political influence come together and make changes in their community.”
Those changes include working toward social justice, something Lane was surprised to learn.
“I keep seeing news headlines about the Satanic Temple, because they kept popping up at the corner of my consciousness over the course of a few years,” she said. “Eventually, I had to look into this because I didn’t understand what was going on.”
When she started the project, Lane couldn’t tell if temple members were part of a performance art group, or if the Satanic Temple really existed.
“It was that confusion around truth that is very appealing to me as a filmmaker,” she said.
Lane was hit by a series of ‘a-ha’ moments throughout the two-year production.
“The first question (I) asked was, are these people actually Satanists or are they pretending to be?” she said. “After a while I thought I understood that they are pretending to be Satanists to make a clever political point, but then I found I was wrong about that, because they were actually Satanists.”
Lane soon realized many of the things she was taught about Satanism — especially its philosophy — were wrong.
The members don’t sacrifice humans or mutilate black cats. Instead, they put on sock drives for the homeless, adopt highways for litter clean up, and try to equal the playing field between Christians and non-Christians, according to Lane.
“Again, as a filmmaker, I try to find things that have unfolding layers of surprise,” she said. “This project did that, while taking me to new places. And I wanted to give that to the viewer.”
Part of the temple’s method of operation, especially spokesperson Lucien Greaves, is to troll far-right organizations.
In one scene, the Satanic Temple members are shown setting up a Pink Mass ritual on the headstone of Catherine Idalette Johnston, the mother of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps.
Westboro Baptist Church is known in part for its anti-gay, Muslim and Jewish organization protests.
Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2:30 p.m., The MARC
Thursday, Jan, 31, 6:45 p.m., Broadway Center Cinema 3
Friday, Feb. 1, noon, Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room
Saturday, Feb. 2, 2:30 p.m., Prospector Square Theatre
The Satanists believe the ritual that includes same-sex partners making out turned Johnston’s spirit gay.
“I came to gradually understand, when it came to understand the group, that the trolling stance is at the heart of Satanism,” Lane said.
While temple members do these things in a joking way, they are serious in their message, according to Lane.
“That’s actually difficult for people to understand, believe or live with in their mind,” she said. “I had to learn that the Satanists are contradictory people, and I had to learn to appreciate that about them.”
Lane also included a segment about the Satanic Panic, a 1980s moral panic sparked by fears of Satanist influence in popular media.
The archive footage included sensationalistic reports from mainstream news outlets about ritual killings and Satanic messages in heavy metal music.
“What the panic did was to introduce a generation to kids to this sexy and dangerous idea (of Satanism), but this underground network of Satanists plotting in secret to take over America was not true,” she said. “However, the great irony is that the result of all of that is the establishment of the Satanic Temple, which is a huge network of Satanists who are plotting to change the culture forever.”
“Hail Satan?” also documents the conflict between Greaves and far-right Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, and examines the lengths Carlson went to discredit Greaves and the Satanic Temple.
“When we really look at what’s happening, you can see it’s a very symbiotic relationship,” Lane said. “I don’t believe that Tucker Carlson hates Lucien Greaves. I think Tucker Carlson needs the Satanic Temple as much as the Satanic Temple needs Tucker Carlson. If anything, what it really comes down to … is how easy it is to troll the Fox News audience.”
During the scenes that lead up to the unveiling of Baphomet at the Arkansas capitol, Greaves, while preparing to speak, is seen strapping on a bulletproof vest because of death threats.
“This is such a profound moment in the film,” Lane said. “One of the things I saw over and over on a daily basis was this kind of mockery and assumption that Lucien was a jerk who doesn’t like Christian people and looking for attention by making fun of them. But in reality, he is really a person who has risked his life in an actual way to do the work he’s done.
“You can look at the work he’s doing and think it’s stupid, but I don’t care,” she said. “The point is it would be nonsensical to not at least have to acknowledge that he means what he’s doing very sincerely enough to have completely changed his life. There is no way for that guy to live a normal life ever again.”
Filming “Hail Satan?” changed Lane’s way of thinking when it comes to religion.
“I went into this project as someone who has no religious education or background, because I grew up and lived a total, secular life,” she said. “I never could understand why people (joined a church), but there is a beautiful connection you make when you join a group. I’m not a Satanist, but I’m impressed by this group. I saw how much this organization has impacted and made their lives.”
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Sundance Film Festival kicks off on a virtual platform Thursday.