SQ Staff Writer Alex Landers recently attended Chicago’s Doc10 Film Festival. Here she shares her top four picks from the festival’s 2019 programme.
Hail Satan? (Penny Lane)
The latest from documentarian and oddities-seeker Penny Lane (Our Nixon, The Pain of Others) is a deep dive into the workings of The Satanic Temple. There’s a black mass, pig heads on spears, naked men, and a statue of Baphomet to rival the neighbouring state monument to the Ten Commandments – and that’s the point. Or it’s supposed to be.
On the surface, it’s relatively simple to detail the self-described “trolling” efforts of this now infamous group. A largely progressive, maybe libertarian, mostly atheistic base comes together to test the weaknesses of the United States’ supposed separation of church and state. And what better way to antagonise the majority religion, Christianity, with the worship of its personification of pure evil – Satan? It works. It works very well.
The Temple presents the Devil as a test. A test to Christians in the US, regarding not just separation of church and state, but of false idols, independence, freedom of speech, even Christianity’s interpretation of Baphomet and The Devil as their own Lucifer, without regard to the symbol’s pre-Christian roots. And the majority of this country is very clearly fragile. At nearly every hearing and board meeting filmed where the erection of a monument to Satan/Baphomet/The Devil is at stake, concerned citizens of the Christian faith express their horror at being harassed, satirised, down-right abused. It makes its point well; when religious minorities seek representation in the public sphere, they are seen as evil and unsafe; when the Christian majority does it, it’s considered the will of our founding fathers (even though it’s probably not).
All this being said, some of the most interesting parts of the film are perhaps those focused on the internal struggles of the organisation itself. Do members of The Temple think of themselves as part of a religion? A political movement? And in either category, is it succeeding at its self-proclaimed mission: “to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will.” ()
While the movement spreads across the country, natural divisions in operations are beginning to occur. The Detroit outpost, led by Jax Blackmore, is called into question when she threatens violence against sitting President Donald Trump. Calling for more direct and urgent acts of protest beyond the bureaucratic and symbolic efforts the group has previously undertaken, Blackmore is certainly approaching her view of Satanism in a different way. Some would say angrier, more aggressive, more ritualistic, maybe even approaching the tyrannical. But is her idea of protest also more motivated? Less trollish, more activist? And can that be allowed to remain?
In a religion (or are they a political group?) that now has several outposts beyond its original core, the Temple finds itself burdened with something particularly anti-individualistic: maintaining the order and motives of its own members. It’s a difficult hurdle, and a defining one. And whether Blackmore was right to threaten a head of state, the situation does bring to light important contrasts that the Temple will have to consider moving forward. From how staunch individualists govern their own groups, to how or if they “worship,” to how far the (largely male) heads of the organisation are willing to go in the name of inclusivity. As blasphemous as the Christian population of the United States seems to find The Temple, is their brand of protest strong enough, in this era of serious unrest, for the truly progressive political movements millennials are building?
The doc handles these questions quite masterfully while illustrating the chaos that something as absurd as submitting proposal paperwork for a bronze sculpture of a man with a goat’s head – surrounded by children! – can cause in a fragile political and moral atmosphere. And that’s probably what most audiences came for. But the deeper, lasting implications that Lane derives are about the nature of boundaries, the purpose of ritual and belief, individualism’s limits, and representation of all types of people when building a movement.
The Biggest Little Farm (John Chester)
An inspirational little movie about a not-so-little task. Documentarian John Chester and wife Chef/Food Blogger Molly Chester take a cue from their anxious rescue dog (and an eviction notice due to incessant barking) to do what they’ve always dreamed – buy a farm. It’s not just any farm, either; designed in collaboration with partner Alan York, it’s the kind of self-sustaining, cyclical eco-system that you’d think only possible in fairy tales and storybooks. Yet here it becomes (over seven years) very real. What the film lacks in cinematically (there’s an over-reliance on narration and a whole lot of drone shots and cell footage), it makes up for in determination and heart. The creation of Apricot Farms is never once shown to be without difficulty, and there are hard lessons learned. But their idealism does come to fruition, and it’s effectively inspiring in a time when we should all be reconsidering our relationships to our environment.
The Biggest Little Farm is out in the USA on May 10th
Knock Down the House (Rachel Lears)
There’s a reason Alexandria Orcasio-Cortez is the stand out member of the US congress right now, and Knock Down the House demonstrates that beautifully, portraying the 27-year-old as bright, funny, and incredibly motivated by and for her community. But what’s most memorable about this documentary isn’t just AOC, but the swift rise of many women battling for representation across the country. The film moves fluidly from candidate to candidate, tracking their individual campaigns, but also their group meetings, and occasional pep talks to each other over the phone; “if one wins, we all win” is the echoed sentiment, and that rings true on election night, as Ocasio-Cortez realises from her Uber that the press is running down the street to her party. And yet, that’s not the end of the story. For the other women who didn’t win their races, there’s still no stopping. They make concession phone calls that have asks in them, refusing to give up on their would-be constituents. And we all take more than hope from this story – the grit, drive, and determination that is particular to these women, and the minority communities they represent. These women verbally fight, canvas hard, and aren’t afraid to run on emotion. It’s that feeling that cultivates the fluid, warm connections between these candidates and their communities, and subsequently empowers this film and its audience.
Knock Down the House is available to stream on Netflix now
Mike Wallace is Here (Avi Belkin)
One of the most stunningly crafted documentaries on television journalism in the last decade. From the first scene (which is a WOW moment featuring Bill O’Reilly) to the very last, Mike Wallace is Here, isn’t just a biography of the founding father of the “T.V. magazine” (60 Minutes), but a hearing on the contrived persona and celebrity of television journalists in the modern era. When Mike Wallace asks his audience “what does freedom mean?” we ask it, too; in a time when much of the news is driven by cable networks and editorialising figure-heads, is this representative of freedom of speech? Is what Bill O’Reilly does an interview or a tantrum? And did Mike Wallace pave the way for those who ask hard-hitting, important questions to do just work – or for egoistic types acting as journalists who perform to get ratings? Like the very best films that question our nature, this doc doesn’t provide clear answers, but it philosophises on them. With gorgeous and startling editing, genuinely heart-wrenching moments, and artful use of split screen, this was the stand out of Doc10, without a doubt.
by Alex Landers
Alex is a child of the late eighties, a horror fan, and an unapologetic feminist. Playwright and visual artist, too. She writes film criticism at .