By David Dent
The debut 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 what happens in the film: it’s an oblique and personal experience best seen rather than read about.
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 sister Evie (Rachel Johnson). All are mourning, in different ways, the passing of their grandmother – or ‘Nannie’ as she’s referred to (June Petersom), 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.
When reviewing the deercam footage, Adam sees three shadowy robed figures in the woods. At night he listens to tapes of the spirit writing being read back. “Sator talks to me. He watches what I’m doing and get messages,” explains ‘Nannie.’ As the mentions of Sator increase, so do the robed figures approach the house.
The nightmarish opening scenes of SATOR, shot stunningly 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.
The Hi-8 shot footage of 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, is authentic, as is the concept of Sator, who appeared within the writings (in sequences shown on film).
In the Q&A afterwards 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 Sator.
This won’t be a film for everyone, and it’s a definite headscratcher, but when I talked to Graham after the screening he was pretty confident that every shot had its purpose. I cannot wait to see it again.