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[CFF 2019 Review] Hail Satan?

[CFF 2019 Review] Hail Satan?

Am I a Satanist?

The thought crossed my mind at a couple points, while watching Penny Lane’s hilariously compelling documentary Hail Satan? And I’m sure it will cross a number of people’s minds as they watch, as well. They are governed by Seven Tenets that include fundamental rights and beliefs, such as acting with compassion towards all creatures, one’s body is subject to one’s own will, the freedoms of others should be respected, etc. And the most important, encompassing thing that is implied or stated in each tenet: in accordance with reason. In accordance with scientific facts. Reason trumps faith in this fairly unreligious organization.

But it didn’t really start that way. In a way, it started for the lulz.

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Hail Satan? begins with an almost absurd video of a man with a blurred out face, on the phone, talking about a rally. And when he says it’s for The Satanic Temple, he has to reiterate “Yes, ‘S’ as in ‘Sam,’” while a man, dressed in black robes with a horned headband saunters up the stairs. It’s a ludicrous combination and immediately made me spit up some water I was drinking. As if that wasn’t enough, we then see the man who calls himself Lucien Greaves standing in front of the camera, still clad in robes and a horned headband, saying, “Hail Satan!” and, with a flick of his wrist, causes a flash of sparks. A parlor trick that doesn’t work. So he does it again.

At the rally, he makes statements like “Here to spread acceptance and open-mindedness” and that it’s a “Great day to be a Satanist.” But this man isn’t Lucien Greaves. Much like his little flick of the wrist, it’s all parlor tricks and acting. But the three men behind the establishment of The Satanic Temple needed a spokesperson. An actor. The real Lucien Greaves is a man with one blinded eye and a sly smile who, along with “Nicholas Crowe” and “Malcom Jarry” established the organization to showcase the hypocrisy of the religious state we currently find ourselves in.

“Then everything got real.”

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The rest of the documentary showcases the members of different chapters of The Satanic Temple and dives into the belief structure. It charts the rise of their organization, as they stood up against Westboro Baptist Church in the only way a troll can, by asking, “How do you fuck with Fred Phelps? You fuck with his mom.” His mom, in case you didn’t know, who’s dead and buried. So they staged Pink Mass over her grave, videotaping same sex couples kissing in the idea that by showcasing their love, she was getting pleasure in the afterlife. That’s when hilarious headlines started popping up.

Penny Lane, who has previously tackled real-life absurdism with her documentary Nuts!, frames Hail Satan? as an examination of these rebels and outcasts who have found a home with The Satanic Temple. While they consider themselves more of a political group than a religious one, it’s easy to see how the group could attract lost sheep in the same way that religious organizations tend to do. As chapters opened up across America—and eventually the world—Lane showcases the similarities that bind them. An idea of true religious freedom, or religious pluralism as they refer to it, that suggests that if the Ten Commandments should sit on state capital grounds, then so, too, should a statue of Baphomet and Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim symbols and effigies.

But the religious pluralism is only one thing. The more important one is that I saw myself in some of the temple’s members. LGBTQ+ people, who have been neglected and ignored stand among the prominent members. Allies and people who have also been ostracized or had their rights stripped from them find a place to belong. And, in some ways more importantly, a place to take action.

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So Hail Satan? looks at some of the ways the temple’s fought back against the idea of a “Christian Nation,” while also offering up the history of how Christianity became so enshrined in American government, from the states to the dollar bills to the pledge of allegiance. What began as a lark and a troll has kind of morphed into something completely different, requiring its own set of governing rules and online meetings to ensure the right, uniform message is being delivered by each chapter. And while they still have that rebellious streak (Satan, of course, was the ultimate rebel in their eyes) and an understanding of how to effectively stage protests that lean into the stereotypes they have been lumped with, they’ve become a political force.

Penny Lane has established herself as one of the better documentarians working today and Hail Satan? is no different. It is witty and silly, yes. But it also touches on important issues and never interjects her thoughts on the subject. She presents interviews from various news sources (the most hilarious ones come from confused Fox News reporters) and one-on-one interviews with members, along with archival videos. It moves quickly and always stays focused on the human side of the temple’s goals, including the ups and downs of some members. Considering it really began in 2013, the fact that it’s grown incredibly fast is fascinating.

And as for the future? As one member says with a wry smile, “the devil’s work is never done.”

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