John Dower, 97 mins, featuring: Louis Theroux, Rob Alter, Andrew Perez, Conner Stark, Marty Rathbun
This crafty, enjoyable and illuminating documentary comes at the Church Of Scientology from an unexpected angle. Louis Theroux is not a polemicist, out to attack Scientology. Instead, he portrays himself as a curious bystander, simply trying to understand the inner workings of the Church regarded by many as a cult.
Theroux begins by issuing an “open call” on Twitter to “any #Scientologists out there” to contact him. (“Don’t go there big man,” one respondent warns him. “Prepare for the loonies to attack you”, says another while he is also told that he will need to lawyer up.) His dream, he says with only mild irony, is to become the first journalist to see another “positive” side of the church.
The film includes the familiar footage of a ranting Tom Cruise and sketches in the story of how L. Ron Hubbard launched Scientology. Theroux recruits prominent ex-Scientologist Marty Rathbun as a special advisor and sets about recreating speeches from Scientology leader David Miscavige and Scientology training exercises with actors. He also pays several visits to “Gold Base,” the headquarters in the California desert protected by razor wire and floodlights.
At its most childish, the film is trying to hold a red rag to a bull. Theroux is hoping to provoke Church members into engaging with him. He knows that Miscavige won’t give him an interview but hopes to persuade current Scientologists to participate. They won’t speak to him but eventually start following him. There are comic scenes here in which Scientologists turn up with their own cameraman to film Theroux as he shoots his documentary. He, in turn, films them.
They stand opposite each other like gunfighters, lens to lens, cellphone to cellphone, neither wanting to give way. Theroux is even accused of harassment - a considerable irony given how aggressively the Scientologists behave toward their critics. He delights in being what the Church calls a “suppressive person” but he is never aggressive or hostile. His mild-mannered approach is in stark contrast to that of the raging John Sweeney in the 2007 BBC Panorama documentary about Scientology.
The relationship between Theroux and Rathbun soon begins to fray. Rathbun provides startling insights into the intimidatory “face ripping" tactics uses against its opponents and also helps the filmmakers cast an actor who can channel the fury of an enraged Miscavige. By his own confession, Rathbun was “the baddest assed dude in Scientology.” He was an enforcer who used violence on occasion and was one of Miscavige’s right-hand men before he fell from grace.
Theroux seems increasingly suspicious of his past. Rathbun, for his part, is very wary about the direction in which Theroux is taking the documentary and appears deeply upset when the so-called “Squirrel Busters” harassing him mention his adopted child.
As in Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear, there are constant disclaimers in which the Scientologists are quoted in intertitles denying the abuses they are alleged to have committed. The circumstantial evidence against them is very compelling. It’s surely a leap too far to believe that all the ex-Scientologists on camera here are embittered liars making up their stories.
Theroux’s beef is less with the religion itself than with its all-powerful leader, whom he likens to a Pope hijacking his own church. Parts of the film are playful and funny but there are very unsettling moments. Insiders talk about how difficult it is for senior members to leave the Church. To do so, they have to turn their back on family and friends. One interviewee likens quitting Scientology to “a kind of suicide.” For all the optimism with which Theroux began his documentary, it is inevitable that it will end on a downbeat note.
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