The trouble started when June Peterson got her hands on a ouija board. It was the summer of 1968. Her husband worked for the CIA and was often traveling, leaving her alone with the kids. It was her daughter who brought the board home in the first place, but the children’s game took on an ominous quality after June started hearing voices in her head. She was convinced the voices belonged to spirits who were contacting her through the game. The spirits mostly went by initials (including one called JFK) but the most vocal spirit had a name: Sator. June met with a medium who lived in the neighborhood and the two women began holding seances in order to contact Sator.
“Within two or three months,” says June’s grandson, Jordan Graham, “Sator just became the ruler of my grandmother's life and in charge of everybody... like my whole family.” Sator gave lessons and the family lived according to them. They built their lives around what Sator wanted. He even instructed the children to spread his message to other kids at school. “It was all in my grandmother’s head, of course,” Graham is quick to add, but June wasn’t the first person in the family to have an experience like this. Graham’s great-great-grandmother was institutionalized after she began hearing voices and his great-grandmother was so badly afflicted by the voices in her head that she took her own life.
In his debut film, Sator, Graham transforms this tragic family history into a kind of personal mythology, weaving improvisational footage of his grandmother into a fictional narrative and splicing actors seamlessly into his family’s home movies. The effect is stunning. Other filmmakers have used their actual relatives to re-enact or excavate family traumas (Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha and Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation come to mind), but Graham has so thoroughly blurred the line between his invented monsters and the very real horror of mental illness he’s all but erased the distinction.
Sator is depicted in the film as a hulking figure clothed in animal pelts, with a hollowed out deer skull for a mask. His acolytes are pyromaniacs shorn of all hair who have a tendency to levitate. The fictional family in the story is plagued by an intergenerational curse that compels them to commit horrible acts of violence at Sator’s behest. As frightening as all this is, the most haunting moments in the film are the scenes of June struggling to recount her memories of Sator as dementia clouds her mind. In the context of the film, June is playing a fictionalized version of herself, but it’s abundantly clear to anyone who’s ever encountered dementia that she is not acting in these scenes. For all its beautifully haunting images, the grim reality of these moments is what give the film its most potent emotional punch.
“I’m absolutely terrified of aging,” Graham told me over a recent video chat. “I feel like I’m aging rapidly because of this fucking movie.” By the time Sator premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival in 2019, Graham had spent nearly six years totally immersed in the project. The closing credits of the film begin with the card “Created by Jordan Graham” followed by a list of the various roles he filled: producer, director, writer, cinematographer, editor, casting, production design, makeup, costumes, cabin construction, gaffer, grip, camera operator, colorist, visual & special effects, sound design, mixer, score.
It’s no surprise that Graham’s childhood ambition was to become a magician. What he pulled off feels almost like a magic trick. After a failed crowdfunding campaign, he got a loan from a friend and supplemented the budget with his wedding videography income. The shoot took about four months, with Graham serving as the sole crew member for the vast majority of the days. The film’s main location, a cabin in the woods, was actually built by Graham in his mother’s backyard. He wandered around his hometown of Santa Cruz collecting palettes to serve as the foundation. He repurposed an old fence to line the inside walls. He hauled huge river rocks up from the woods to build the fireplace (the latter feat saddling him with a case of chronic costochondritis that still afflicts him to this day).
This artisanal approach to indie filmmaking extended all the way into post-production. Despite not being a musician, Graham created the entire score by himself. He dropped nuts and bolts into pots and pans for percussion and ran a violin bow across an old bass guitar to produce a haunting string sound. He then manipulated each note in an audio editing software until he arrived at the compositions he had in mind. Graham also recorded every single sound effect – every breath, every footstep, every rustle of the clothing – either during late night Foley sessions in his garage or, in some cases, generating the sounds with his mouth like Michael Winslow from Police Academy. Perhaps not since Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi has a filmmaker so single-handedly and single-mindedly willed a film into existence.
This intense degree of dedication could be seen as a form of madness, which is of course a central theme in the film. The main text Graham drew upon in crafting the film’s mythology was his grandmother’s journal, a nearly 1,000 page long account of her experiences with Sator, composed in the months between the arrival of the ouija board and the time she was committed to a psychiatric facility in the fall of 1968. One is tempted to draw parallels between the generations. How different is Graham’s meticulously crafted film from his grandmother’s meticulously written journal? It may be precisely this synthesis of madness and creativity, of form and content, that makes Sator such a potent work of art.
In Graham’s view, the journal his grandmother labored over was an act of personal expression. “They were constantly moving around,” he says. While his grandfather was off “doing his secret spy shit,” June was left alone in unfamiliar places with little in the way of community. “I feel like she just felt she wasn't important. She was struggling with people caring, or validating her. And so that's when she conjured up Sator.” Though it may have been a dangerous delusion in the end, this experience didn’t have an entirely negative effect on June. At one point, Sator convinced her that she was an incarnation of the Biblical Eve. After that, Graham says, “she became really empowered and started wearing all white and and wearing her pearls and became this very, like, strong woman figure."
June passed away in May of 2019, shortly before the film’s world premiere. Graham was able to share the good news with her but unfortunately “she didn’t know what that meant or that she was even in a film at that point. Her mind was so far gone.” In truth, June was scarcely aware that they were making a movie even when her scenes were being shot. Her only prior experience in front of Graham’s camera was a Christmas video that briefly went viral on YouTube. Graham describes the filming of her scenes as “a race against time” to preserve her memories before they were completely gone. In his director’s commentary, he says:
“My grandmother didn’t really know what was going on while we were shooting. But she did know we were there hanging out with her and she loved the attention. And she would call me up every day being like, ‘Hey, when are you and your friends going to come visit me?’ Before making this film, our relationship was always so distant, but these last few years [were] the closest that we [had] ever been. And I feel like we really bonded and I got to learn about her life from her. And so I’m just really glad to have been there and had some sort of relationship with her and [been] able to memorialize her in the last years of her life.”
Sator is not a film that unfolds as a traditional linear story. It’s told elliptically, not unlike someone searching their mind for a lost memory, chasing a fleeting feeling or hoping to excavate meaning from the fog of time. At one point in the film, June’s account of Sator trails off and she summarizes the whole endeavor with a poetic turn of phrase: “Time has swallowed it all up.” But the miraculous thing about the film is that it manages to snatch back from the jaws of time small glimpses of a story that would otherwise have been completely lost.
To some extent, all films are lightning in a bottle. They capture a combination of elements – certain people, in certain places, at a certain time – that can never be recreated. Sator reminds us of this unique power that cinema possesses. It’s not an easy film to categorize. Is it a horror film, a poetic documentary, outsider art or cinematic therapy? I think the answer is that it’s all of these things and more. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t easily fit into the current Hollywood-friendly definition of the term, but is in fact the epitome of independent cinema.
You can watch Sator on Shudder now.