I’m two years late to the party, but I finally got round to delving into Louis Theroux’s documentary on the Church of Scientology, My Scientology Movie (2015). Directed by John Dower, the film documents the attempts of Theroux and crew to create some sort of dialogue with the Church itself – with varying success. The Church refused to participate in the making of the film (in fact, many of their letters to the producers of the documentary are shown within the film itself), so the documentary takes a different approach to most: the filmmakers prodded and poked until they got a reaction. Many of the key anecdotes from ex-Scientologists are re-enacted with young actors and the audition process also makes up part of the film.
I expected the film to be interesting – as an outsider, I find Scientology to be fascinating and I’ve enjoyed all the documentaries of Theroux’s that I’ve watched – but I wasn’t prepared for how unsettling it is. Throughout the film, Theroux’s interviews are interrupted by unidentified individuals who simply appear out of nowhere, cameras rolling and demanding to know exactly what he thinks he’s doing. It’s genuinely quite disturbing to see the ease with which they track down dissenters, traitors and anyone else they perceive to be a threat to Scientology’s aims. At one point, the main interviewee, ex-Scientology Inspector General Marty Rathbun, is greeted at the airport terminal by three high-ranking Church executives. His footage of their psychologically abusive rhetoric, insisting that the Church doesn’t miss him and that he isn’t living “a real life”, is difficult to watch. As Theroux puts it in the film, “They are behaving in a way that is so obviously pathological—you would think they would realize that other people would see that and think this is a religion of lunatics.” The way Scientology is presented by its followers – a misunderstood, intensive self-help course, essentially – is directly at odds with the reality shown in the documentary. They come off as paranoid, invasive and frequently rather scary.
A large part of the film focuses on Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, who took over leadership after the death of the Church’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. It also deals with allegations of Miscavige’s violent outbursts towards Scientologists such as Jeff Hawkins (another interviewee and ex-Scientologist) and harassment of journalists and defectors from the Church. The footage shown of Miscavige at grand Scientology galas is disquieting too – all dictators worth their salt have a sense of the theatrical, I suppose.
Regardless of how Scientologists come across by virtue of their own actions, it’s a very balanced portrayal of the Church. It’s clear that they didn’t set out to make a film about how “evil” the Church of Scientology is; they simply dive into the oddness of it all. In many ways, it’s an incredibly funny piece of filmmaking. It was referred to in a Telegraph review as “Pythonesque” and I’d have to agree – it almost seems beyond belief. Cars with blacked-out windows, ominous letters and visits from sketchy Scientologist minions are strange things to see in a documentary, but it’s real edge-of-your-seat stuff.
I’d highly recommend My Scientology Movie. Louis Theroux is on top form, the documentary itself is structured in an unusual and interesting way and I really felt for the ex-Scientologists interviewed (or, at least, for some of them). I got the impression that they understood that they could never really escape. No matter how far they run, the Church will always track them down, learn who they’re fraternising with and what they’re doing. That’s terrifying.
My personal thoughts on Scientology can be summed up in an excellent quote from John Sweeney, a BBC correspondent who was harassed by Scientologist operatives while making a documentary about the Church. In a 2012 article for The Independent, he said of the Church of Scientology: “In the 21st century, everyone has a right to believe in anything or nothing. But not everything that claims to be a religion is a religion. It could be, for example, a brain washing cult.”
My Scientology Movie is available on BBC iPlayer for the next 19 days.
P.S. If you’ve heard nothing from me by next month, you know that they’ve silenced me. 😉