HAIL SATAN?

★★★★

A HELL OF A FASCINATING DOCUMENTARY

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Charlie David Page
11th June 2019

The Satanic Temple was founded in the United States in 2013, and has gained an impressive following since its inception. Well-known for the spectacle of their protests, they have caused outrage across the globe with their hell-raising antics. Growing to 50,000 members in just three years, it's a phenomenon which has taken the world by storm. 'Hail Satan?' captures the group's anarchy from its origins, explaining the story of its evolution and ideals in a very tongue-in-cheek documentary.

First of all, put any preconceptions of what you think the Satanic Temple may be aside. The name is easily replaceable with the word "rebels", which give you a much better idea of what their purpose is. Their motivation isn't devil worship or opposition to Catholicism, but rather disrupting the system and the status quo. They believe that despite the United States Constitution demanding separation of church and state, too often that's not the case. By using Satanism as their figurehead, they're able to both gain attention from people and the press, as well as exemplify why no single religion should be favoured over any other. The prime case study in the documentary features Ten Commandments monuments being placed on Capitol Grounds, so the Satanists push to have a statue of Baphomet placed along side them. This act typically results in the removal of the Ten Commandments.

'HAIL SATAN?' TRAILER

Far from being demonic, we see the Satanists having to prove themselves over and over again - they hand out socks and sanitary products to homeless people, pick up roadside trash (with pitchforks, of course), run after-school childcare and even organise blood drives. They do good to prove they're not evil, but to no avail - we repeatedly see Fox News commentators trashing the group without any understanding of their motivations, or religious devotees quoting "In God we trust" from U.S. currency or referencing the Pledge of Allegiance, without knowledge that these were only implemented around the same time that fear overcame Americans during the Cold War, and the Founding Fathers in fact deliberately barred religion from the constitution (hence the First Amendment).

The Satanists also have a surprising sense of humour. While what they're doing is very serious business (they describe it as "rebellion against arbitrary authority"), part of what they enjoy about their disruption is the enjoyment they have along the way. With many of the members having been raised within traditional religions and segueing into something more secular, Satanism becomes a natural progression towards action. "Being an atheist is boring," Satanic Temple member Mason Hargett quips, going on to elaborate that there's no sense of community, identity or history with atheism. It's wonderful watching the more mischievous protests the Satanists embark on: one in particular against the Westboro Baptist Church (yes, those delightful people best known for their inflammatory hate speech and brandishing signs like "God Hates Fags") saw them rile up its leader Fred Phelps by holding a "pink mass" involving same-sex couples making out on his mum's grave.

Put any preconceptions of the Satanic Temple - their motivation isn't devil worship or opposition to Catholicism, but rather disrupting the system and the status quo.

As a documentary, the content is fascinating, but its actual composition is quite rudimentary. Director Penny Lane ('Nuts!', 'Our Nixon') has put together a cast of quirky characters, from The Satanic Temple's spokesperson Lucien Graves (not his real name - remember, it's all about the spectacle) through to important and influential figureheads of the group. Interweaving news footage, archive material, relevant cinematic excerpts and fresh interviews, we get a glimpse at both the history of the group and the issues they're combatting, as well as in-depth coverage of their biggest battles. However, there's little that's stylish or slick about the assembly of the film - its construction is very paint-by-numbers, besides a few amusing musical choices like cheerful Christian songs used over the construction of their Baphomet monument, or 'Hallelujah' as the statue is unveiled to euphoric crowds of supporters.

As the ultimate example of judging a book by its cover, Satanism is both a fascinating documentary subject and worthy adversary for religious preference of any kind. It "commemorates what makes America great, and that is religious liberty," Lucien explains. This is an unconventional community battling conformity, asking the population to think for themselves and show respect for others. Set aside your preconceived notions of what Satanism is about and check out 'Hail Satan?' - it's a hell of an eye-opening experience.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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