Realm of Satan
(USA, 79 min.)
Dir. Scott Cummings
Programme: NEXT (World Premiere)
Let’s face it: Satanists are way more interesting than Christians are. Christians drink the metaphorical blood of their saviour, while Satanists drink real blood. Christians eat the blood of Christ; Satanists eat babies. Or those are just two of the hilariously inaccurate hyperboles peddled about the Church of Satan amid the Satanic Panic.
In reality, members of the Church of Satan are everyday spiritual people. They work, they pray, and they do their own laundry. Realm of Satan, directed by Scott Cummings and made in collaboration with the Church of Satan, is an offbeat window into the world of the occult.
The film joins a growing body of docs, like Hail Satan, Satan Wants You, and Coven that demystify the atheist philosophy. Cummings offers a series of episodic vignettes, often shot as tableaux-style long takes, which capture the quotidian practices of members of the faithful. What follows is an immersive portrait that demonstrates the Church’s inclusive practices, but also reflects the recurrent scapegoating and fearmongering that makes the practice taboo. Realm of Satan lets the practitioners of the Church of Satan own their idiosyncrasies, but in a normalised, non-judgemental way. This is a vibrantly edgy, darkly funny, and refreshingly illuminating portrait of spirituality outside the mainstream.
Everyday People, Everyday Acts
Scott signals from the outset that Realm of Satan is no ordinary portrait. A long take observes a goat in labour. She bucks her legs and strains as the film opens, pushing out a little calf. She delivers one of the Church’s richest symbols. Later in the film, Cummings blurs the lines of Baphomet, the deity who is half human and half goat, as a practitioner takes the goat in her arms and breastfeeds it. Cut to another member of the faithful as he hangs his bedsheets on his clothesline, and the doc, shot by shot, builds an episodic portrait that makes the most surreal images seem mundane in the grand scheme of things.
Other sequences are more overtly creative. For example, a vignette with Magistra Peggy Nadramia, the current High Priestess of the Church of Satan, and her husband, Magus Peter H. Gilmore, High Priest of the Church, as they fix a funky cocktail. Smoke wafts from their tumblers as the leaders offer a deadpan salute to the camera. Their bar offers a vividly coloured haven of kitsch. This church doesn’t define itself with vaulted ceilings or ornate offerings, but rather good vibes and an open atmosphere. Realm of Satan captures the striking art direction of these quotidian settings especially well with shocks of red and black making for pleasing compositions that create a fine interplay between warmth and darkness.
Other vignettes offer a window into the organization’s openness with equally visually striking portraits. For example, a long take presents a bit of group sex in which members indulge in carnal pleasure and fetish gear. The scene illustrates the organization’s sex positivity and openness to LGBTQ+ people, as well as the Church’s emphasis on the present without worry for the afterlife. The film shows us what it means to live without sin.
Persecution for Beliefs
Meanwhile, the camera roams the dark halls of the Church as members chant “Hail Satan!” It reminds viewers that this organization has its own roots in scripture and ritual. While aspects of the Satanists’ practises might be outside some viewers’ sense normalcy, there’s nothing especially abnormal about what Cummings finds here. This group is simply a community with a shared belief system and practises that express said beliefs.
Despite the Church of Satan just being one organization among many in America, Realm of Satan observes the stigma that Satanists continue to face. One stretch of the film offers news footage of a church scorched by arson. Surveillance footage shows the church targeted by vandals who torched the building with no regard for the human life inside. Cummings invites viewers to ask why faithful members of other communities persecute another for its beliefs. This lean and insightful portrait suggests there’s no reason to fear follows of the fallen angel.