Friday, 6/21/2019

I don't believe it!

Religion and spirituality in films

I don't believe it!

PENNY LANE, the director of the documentary feature HAIL SATAN? about a slightly different protest movement.

Lots of people eventually reach a point at which they question their own view of the universe. Religious convictions acquired in childhood are particularly subject to these thoughts: Is there a God who created us and who is watching over us? And if so, what is our relationship to him?

The protagonist in DIARY OF AN AFRICAN NUN, for example, ponders this when her fears and doubts grow from day to day. A life in poverty and chastity, governed by rules and not by one's own will: can this really be the right path? Huldrych Zwingli was also not convinced that Church doctrine was the path to God. The Swiss theologian was one of the earliest critics of Catholicism; in 1525, his "Commentary on True and False Religion" urged a reformation of Christianity. The historical drama THE REFORMER. ZWINGLI: A LIFE'S PORTRAIT. follows the radical reformer whose theses and convictions can still be felt today.

A SHELTER AMONG THE CLOUDS depicts Christians and Muslims coexisting peacefully ... until an old story threatens the community.

Conflicts don't just arise when people interpret their own religion. Whenever people of very different faiths encounter one another, a tricky situation can arise, because it's other people who are challenging our convictions. The residents of an Albanian village in A SHELTER AMONG THE CLOUDS, for example, notice this. Christians and Muslims have lived there in harmony for a long time, but this changes one day when word spreads that the village mosque was once a Christian church, triggering anger among some of the villagers.

In other parts of the world, the hope of peace was extinguished long ago. This is the mood in MANTA RAY, which depicts the persecution of the Muslim minority Rohingya people in Myanmar. In neighboring Thailand, these refugees are hardly welcome; in fact, they are often cruelly hunted down. In SATURDAY AFTERNOON, on the other hand, it's radical Muslims who won't tolerate other religions; based on a true story, this thriller tells how six terrorists in a café in Bangladesh brutally murdered people of other faiths. Will such incidents become everyday occurrences in our part of the world? That's the warning in the Austrian film VIENNA CONFIDENTIAL, in which covert Islamists seek to permanently destabilize central Europe.


Faith and spirituality can, however, certainly can keep people grounded in a world that is so big and confusing. The best example of this is Elena in LAND OF ASHES, who at age 13 is about to enter adulthood. But she, too, is somewhat between life and death. Sometimes this girl hangs out with her school friends in the jungle of Costa Rica, where she lives. Sometimes she tends to the memory of the dead, who to her remain a natural part of her everyday life. The ghost of her late mother in particular helps her to navigate the jungle of adolescence in this coming-of-age drama.

Finding one's own way without the rules of others is also the goal of The Satanic Temple. Penny Lane's documentary HAIL SATAN? offers a portrait of a rather different organization that stands for religious freedom and that declares faith to be a very personal matter. Sound bizarre? It is. But there's more to it, as Penny revealed to us in an interview. The director describes how she became interested in this topic and reveals her own view of religion.


When and how did you come across The Satanic Temple?

I first came across The Satanic Temple in maybe 2014, as news of their Baphomet monument campaign in Oklahoma began to really take hold in the media. I thought it was a funny and smart effort, and I assumed (mostly wrongly, it turns out) that it was largely a kind of political media prank. Meaning, I thought there wasn't "really" a Satanic Temple at all, but a group of activists pretending to be Satanists in order to make a much-needed point about the hypocrisy of lawmakers who want to promote so-called religious freedom when what they really want is to establish Christian supremacy in the public square. 

What got you interested in this topic?

It was really upon reading an article by the great journalist Anna Merlan that I became interested in the story of The Satanic Temple. In Anna's piece, she reported on how this group was not nearly as simple as I had assumed it was based on my cursory viewing of some funny headlines. I started to understand that there were actual members of an actual organization here, not just some anonymous pranksters. The Satanic Temple was obviously real, and its members were actually Satanists, and then I realized I had no idea what Satanists were and what they believed, and then I was off to the races as I realized how incredibly surprising each step of this realization process was. 

Was your own upbringing religious? Is there something you believe in?

No, my upbringing was not religious at all, and even sort of anti-religious in the sense that my mother had been raised Catholic and felt quite oppressed by it herself. So there was a vague but powerful dislike of religious institutions, and I never had any idea why people were religious or did any of that stuff like go to church, et cetera. It just seemed stupid and vaguely mentally ill, to be honest. Now I feel completely different due to my exposure to and understanding of Satanism and Satanists. I feel much closer to "getting" what religion is for, but I'm still not especially drawn to any religious practices myself.

Do you feel religion is something that's obsolete?

Not really, but sort of. Not really in that we all believe in things we can't prove are "real" in a material sense. We all organize ourselves around stories, mythological structures, moral judgments, and so on. That's where religion comes from, and the purpose it has always served and still serves. But yes, sort of, in that many of the religious beliefs we have that are pre-modern in origin are actually anti-modern in practice and therefore a detriment to us. 


Interviewer: Oliver Armknecht