Thursday 11 February 2021

Sator (USA 2019: Dir Jordan Graham)

The second feature from Jordan Graham is an extraordinary mix of reality and fiction, a succession of startling images with a rising sense of the sinister. It’s also nigh on impossible to explain exactly what happens in the film: it’s an oblique and personal experience better seen than read about, although the director assured me when I spoke to him after the movie's debut screening at the 2019 Soho Horror Film Festival, that, although the film feels difficult, every shot is vital to its understanding.

Adam (Gabe Nicholson) lives in a cabin in the woods. By day he checks cameras for sightings of deer, and tries to summon them using a carved reed whistle: he also receives occasional visits from his brother Pete (Michael Daniel) and Pete's decidedly ethereal girlfriend Evie (Rachel Johnson). All are mourning, in different ways, the passing of their grandmother – or ‘Nani’ as she’s referred to (June Peterson), a woman who in her later years indulged in spirit writing, the results of which made constant reference to a being named ‘Sator’ who may or may not be a guardian spirit. Adam and Pete's mother has gone missing, their father isn't around and their sister Deborah (Aurora Lowe) may also be a missing presence; technically the three 'children' are orphans. 'Nani' describes Sator as a being "who was in charge of everything..." and who commands fear and respect, cloaking his disciples in the skin of animals; an omnipresence. 

One night while out in the woods Adam thinks he sees something, and when he later reviews the deercam footage, three shadowy robed figures can be vaguely glimpsed. At night he listens to tapes of the spirit writing being read back by his grandmother. “Sator talks to me. He watches what I’m doing and I get messages,” she explains. As the mentions of Sator increase, so do the visions. Adam's grief, and the desire to hold on to his grandmother's voice, means that Sator becomes more and more real in his eyes; are the visions he sees real or something internal within Adam?

The nightmarish opening scenes of Sator, stunningly shot in black and white, with the forest backdrop offering up flickering images of levitating bodies and a burning man, set up the mood of this strange film. The movie switches from 4:3 to widescreen, colour to black and white, past to present and combines reality and fiction, to the point where the viewer cannot separate the two. 

But there's an intensely personal aspect to this movie that is quite unusual: the Hi-8 shot footage of 'Nani' is in reality Graham’s grandmother, who was diagnosed with dementia towards the end of her life and took up spirit writing at the suggestion of a medium; the authenticity extends to the concept of Sator, who appeared within her writings, and the film of her explanations is integrated into the film.

In the Q&A after the screening I attended Graham admitted that this aspect of his grandmother’s life had been hushed up by the rest of the family, so it was a bold movie not only to include the footage but to combine reality and fiction in the way he does in the film. Is it exploitative? Not in the least: Sator is both a memorial to his dead relative and an extended meditation on visions, dreams and the power of the mind.

Sator won’t be a film for everyone; its pace is languid, even funereal at times. But it's an enthralling watch which rewards your attention, pulled together by an amazing sound design (also by Graham), and a succession of images that stay with you long after the film has ended.

Sator is released on UK Digital Download platforms from 15 February, with a DVD release from 22 February courtesy of Lightbulb Film Distribution.

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