Director: John Dower
Starring: Louis Theroux
Runtime: 1 hr 39 m
“You’re not a very good journalist, are you? This is probably as good as you’ll get.” All things considered, a rather weak insult to deliver to internationally renowned documentary aficionado Louis Theroux. This is a man with two BAFTAs and a Royal Television Society Award under his belt. He stares back at the woman seated opposite him, blank faced. He and a group of actors are taking part in an exercise which ex-Scientologist Marty Rathburn believes will help them understand what it was like to live in the faith’s secretive Gold Base, under the alleged tyranny of church leader David Miscavige. Namely, they sit there and verbally abuse one another, with the goal being to display no emotion regardless of the venom spat into their face.
My Scientology Movie does not seek to pick apart the philosophy of the religion – which by the end of the film feels more like a cult than a reasonable system of belief. Rather it attempts to investigate the immense level of secrecy surrounding the Scientologists, and the numerous allegations of abuse amongst ecclesiastical higher ups. With Rathburn in a directorial role, and following conversations with other ex-Scientologists, Theroux attempts to stage recreations of life behind the razor-wired walls of the Scientologists’ compound – he also takes a few trips to visit the place himself, which prove less than popular with the residents.
This includes a particularly harrowing scene reenacting life inside The Hole, a mock office space within the Gold Base where individuals labelled Suppressive Persons (oft abbreviated to SP’s), who are accused of practising the religion improperly, are allegedly held twenty four hours a day until they are judged to have redeemed themselves. While the church has denied the existence of The Hole altogether, many independent voices maintain otherwise. It doesn’t creep into the back of your throat in the same way as Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, in which former Indonesian death squad leaders are challenged to reenact their genocidal acts, but it’s still a sobering scene.
We are invited to gaze upon the studio staging of these recreations, the cameras and lighting, the jet black curtains draping down from the ceiling. It’s all very self consciously pieced together. The reenactments aren’t metafictional – we are invited to watch them not as an audience, but as crew members. The transparency of the film’s production seems quite deliberately juxtaposed with the surreptitiousness of Scientology. We are shown everything Theroux and the crew get up to, but the church repeatedly declines his requests for interview, turns every attempt at contact into an altercation. Where My Scientology Movie has nothing to hide, the individuals it attempts to investigate scurry from under the glass of the microscope and out of sight.
Yet, despite the serious nature of the subject matter – the dictatorial reign of Miscavige, the ongoing church endorsed harassment of ex-members, the questionable state of the organisation’s finances – the documentary seems largely played for laughs. The comedic timing of the editing is impeccable, with many long, silent shots of Theroux staring incredulously into the face of some ridiculous thing which has been said or done. The casting of a caricature of Tom Cruise, entertaining as it is, seems out of place. He’s arguably the most well-known face of Scientology, a figure easy to ridicule, but despite having Miscavige as the best man at his wedding does not appear to have been in notably close proximity to any of the church’s shady goings on. The film is less a serious investigative piece into the faith, à la Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, and more Theroux poking a stick through the bars of a lion’s cage and jabbing it to see if it’ll react. The lion does react, and with immense hostility.
The informal nature isn’t a bad thing per say – after recent releases such as Drinking to Oblivion and Savile, it’s nice to see Theroux’s work take on a less maudlin tone. But it’s not a documentary which really unpicks any of the mysteries it seeks to solve. It points a finger at Scientology. “This is suspicious,” it states. But how is the viewer supposed to respond, other than to say “I know?”.