Blanche Barton, Peter Gilmore, Scott Cummings, Sundance Institute Director of Programming Kim Yutani, and Peggy Nadramia throwing horns. (Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Veronika Lee Claghorn
Who knew that Satanists would end up being the most vocal advocates of free speech and the First Amendment via a mostly silent documentary? (Is silence the name of the game at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival with mostly dialogue-free titles like Sasquatch Sunset and Realm of Satan generating a ton of buzz?) Sometimes it takes a visionary like Scott Cummings, who reached out to several former collaborators to make a really weird, provocative film that commands attention in Sundance’s NEXT category.
“The Church of Satan just popped into my head,” explains the director. This shouldn’t come to a surprise for those who follow Cummings’ career trajectory; he is perhaps most famous/infamous for Buffalo Jugglos, a short documentary exploration of the upstate New York Insane Clown Posse rap group scene — one that embraces jester tomfoolery like Faygo soda and sex addiction.
The representatives and leaders of the Church of Satan, including Blanche Barton and Peggy Nadramia, who join Cummings onstage, say he was the natural choice to push their agenda. “I thought Scott is just the person who can revitalize the way in which the Church of Satan is approached in cinema… I think you all will agree that [he did just that],” declares Peter Gilmore, the reigning High Priest of the Church of Satan.
Cummings offers to the audience that visual language means a lot to him and that he gravitates to single-shot compositions. “I like the idea that all people are performers and that the world is a stage, and you’re kind of giving people a stage to perform on,” he quips. He notes the importance of great cinematography to lend power to subjects that aren’t necessarily speaking, giving a shout-out to his Buffalo Jugglos cinematographer, Gerald Kerkletz, whom he asked to join him on this particular project.
While Cummings is satisfied with the project, he self-flagellates, wondering why he didn’t get more nudity, at times, to satiate the audience. “I’m an ex-pornographer, so I’m not squeamish,” he adds. The director says he formed his narrative in Realm of Satan by threading together narrow vignettes of days in the extraordinary (and sometimes painstakingly ordinary) lives of actual Church of Satan members.
Cummings says the film itself is like a ritual, and member Nadramia speaks to the Sundance crowd about the notion that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. “That’s what the Church of Satan is all about, and I think that is very well-reflected in the film and in the experience of it. If you can sit with it and be in it and allow it to take you, people will be taken to some uncomfortable places and to some… er… revelations.”
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