With its unusual release scheduling, it was actually quite difficult to see Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. Most cinemas seemed to be showing it as a one-off on Monday 10th October and, we were dismayed to discover, tickets had sold out across all venues in Edinburgh, days in advance.
Really? Were we not going to be able to see it? Luckily our local indie – the lovely Cameo Picture House – eventually decided to put on a couple of extra showings, so we trooped along last night, late to the party but glad to have blagged a pass. And these extra shows all sold out too, so it seems odd that it’s not been given more of an airing, unless the scarcity is a strategy in itself. If it is, it’s working…
The film itself is a bit of a curate’s egg. It’s hard not to enjoy Theroux’s antics: he’s immensely likeable – quirky, funny,serious, demanding, self-reflective – and the film is never less than entertaining, engaging my attention throughout.
But… well, it’s impossible to ignore the emptiness at the film’s core. It’s supposed to be a documentary about Scientology, and it isn’t really. Not much is illuminated here.
I’m minded, this morning, to watch Alex Gibney’s 2015 Scientology documentary, Going Clear, referenced by Louis Theroux in the Q & A session broadcast after his film. So I rent it from amazon – and the comparison is stark. Gibney’s film is a much richer affair, explanatory and revelatory in a way Theroux’s is not. It’s clear that Gibney’s movie has impacted on Theroux’s, made him realise he needs a different angle to give it a USP – but, honestly, I don’t think his solution really works.
Going Clear is truly an exposé. It traces the origins of Scientology, reveals plenty about L Ron Hubbard’s motives (primarily to make a lot of money and pay no tax) and raises a lot of important issues that Theroux just doesn’t touch upon. There’re those Sea Org members, for example, who work for 40c per hour, a slave wage that has led to the FBI investigating the church on suspicion of human trafficking.
From Theroux, I learn that the Scientologists are neurotic about their privacy, that they don’t welcome journalists, that they go out of their way to intimidate those who speak out against them. I learn that new recruits sign up for classes and pay their way up the scale, and that those who reach the upper echelons become members of the elite Sea Org (no mention here of the menial work they are expected to do). I learn that the church is rich and litigious. I don’t learn much else.
And this vacuum is a fatal flaw. Okay, so it’s fascinating to watch former Inspector General Marty Rathbun run the full gamut of emotions, to witness the mixture of contempt and awe he still feels for Scientology. It’s painful to witness his inability to examine his own culpability and the naked defensiveness that emerges when he’s questioned. But even here, Gibney elicits more than Theroux. In Going Clear, Rathbun admits to feeling shame, to regrets that haunt him all the time. We also gain a greater understanding of why people choose to stay in a cult that bullies and abuses them: some have grown up within its confines; others can’t bear to admit that they have been so duped, so compromised. Some are frightened, not just of the persecution they know follows those who leave, but also of what might be revealed: the regular ‘audits,’ where their deepest, darkest thoughts are analysed, are all recorded and kept on file. And they all know that these can be used against them, should they try to break free of their cage.
Theroux does succeed in showing us clear evidence of the Scientologists’ stonewalling technique: by talking to him only about trespass and private vs. public access, they manage to dominate the conversation and stymy all efforts to find out more. He attempts to fill the space left by their silence, hiring actors to recreate some of the church’s practices as described to him by Marty. But it’s not clear to see what these achieve: the young hopefuls are game and give it all they’ve got, but it isn’t real, and it certainly doesn’t have the impact of the reenactments in, say, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, where the subjects were telling their own tales. Nor does it carry as much weight as the testimony of Tom Cruise’s ‘arranged’ girlfriend, Nazanin Boniadi, or Sara Northrup’s painful description of being cut off from her daughter, who chose to stay with the church when her family left.
Theroux’s My Scientology Movie is thoroughly enjoyable, but curiously dissatisfying as a documentary, revealing little, leaving the church’s shiny facade pristine and unscratched. If you want to be entertained and amused, then Theroux’s film will deliver the goods. But if you really want to learn about Scientology and its dodgy practices, then Gibney’s is the one to watch.
My Scientology Movie: 3.3 stars
Going Clear: 4.6 stars