CAMBRIDGE — Whenever you watch a Penny Lane documentary, like “Our Nixon” (2013) or “Nuts!”(2016), you learn something new. In her latest film, “Hail Satan?,” she has scoured the archives to find footage of Charlton Heston presenting tablets with the Ten Commandments to communities across the country as a promotion for the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film in which Heston plays Moses. From this publicity stunt came the “tradition” of putting up these religious icons on secular public grounds.
Last year Arkansas State senator and Christian minister Jason Rapert had a similar memorial erected on the grounds of the State Capitol, in Little Rock. That inspired the Satanic Temple to perform a PR stunt of their own, demanding the right to put up in the same place an 8-foot bronze statue of the goat-headed pagan deity Baphomet. They wanted to dramatize the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
Founded in 2013 by Lucien Greaves, the Satanic Temple was originally intended as a satiric performance group demonstrating for humanist causes. But as often happens with even parody religions, the line between hokum and faith, illusion and reality, blurred. The organization has evolved into a secular politically activist religion in its own right, with over 100,000 followers in branches all over the country. Its headquarters, appropriately, is in Salem.
I discussed “Hail Satan?” with Lane last month in Cambridge where she was screening it at the Boston Underground Film Festival.
Q. Are you afraid of getting a hostile response?
A. There are a lot of insane people on the Internet, though a lot of them may be bots. These are nutty people who write all caps, misspelled, crazy things, like the president, so it doesn’t bother me. It’s kind of amusing. But we’ll see.
Q. There is a scene in the film of Greaves with a Kevlar vest in a public appearance after he received a death threat. Do you find that alarming?
A. It was totally terrifying. Again, it’s difficult to know what kind of threat to take seriously. He was very annoyed having to wear the vest in the heat; but when you have someone who had once been convicted of planning a mass shooting saying they’re going to shoot you, you have to take them seriously.
Q. Is this your most political film?
A. I think so. Because it’s a subject taking place in the present day. All my films have been engaged in politics one way or another but the others were historical subjects. It’s different making a film about living people and current events. Also, the post-2016-election era makes everything seem a lot more urgent and frightening. People are searching for any kind of solutions to the political problems we have right now. So they think, Satanists, why not?
Q. Did you suspect that the Satanic Temple might be a scam like the one in “Nuts!”?
A. At first I thought skepticism would play a bigger part in the project. I thought there must be some kind of subterfuge happening. People were using fake names and I thought I’d be dealing with some slippery people who were into lying. But it seemed they were honest about what they were doing. They were using fake names because they were scared of being murdered, not because they were trying to deceive anybody.
Q. Would you say that many of your films deal with the power of faith and the dangers of deception?
A. What I care about are beliefs, how beliefs get made and the role of evidence in forming your beliefs, and also the role of narrative, what kind of stories that you have that can form your belief and the stories that your beliefs form. As a documentary filmmaker you’re always thinking about both those things – stories and evidence. I think those are key political and a social issues -- for me maybe the biggest ones.
Q. You started the film as a skeptic. Have you become more of a believer?
A. I feel like I’m satanically aligned. But at the end of the day I’m not a Satanist. It’s an identity. If it doesn’t speak to your soul -- or whatever an atheist like me thinks a soul is -- it would be a lie to pretend to be a Satanist. I’ve always been an outsider when it comes to organized groups and I’m completely mystified why people are religious. Is it just tradition? I never got what value it provided for people until I made this movie. I started the project thinking this would be fun because I could poke fun at religious people; and then I realized, no, you’re making a film about religion. I really went through a transformation in my own understanding. I never had a clearer sense of what religion provides for people than I do now; and it’s so bizarre and ironic that I came to that through Satanism.
Q. What do you hope people get from this film?
A. It’s different for different people; but at the bare minimum the film is about trying to question where your beliefs come from and if they are really true. There are so many things throughout the film that are called into question. Like, what is a Satanist? Most people think they know the answer, that they kill babies at midnight or they drink blood. But where did those ideas come from? Then there is the relationship between Christianity and the US government. People have a lot of mistaken beliefs about that. There are many beliefs that are frankly wrong, and I think the film wants you to confront them.
Q. Are you a member of the Satanic Temple?
A. Yeah. It cost $20 and you get a little membership card.
“Hail Satan?” opens April 26 at the Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner.
Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.