Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: John Dower.
You would probably think that there would be nothing new to learn about the secretive Church of Scientology and its sinister practices after Alex Gibney virtually eviscerated it and its messianic leader David Miscavige in his 20015 documentary Going Clear. And you would be right. But that hasn’t stopped British journalist and television presenter Louis Theroux (best known for his show Weird Weekends) from tackling scientology. He covers some familiar ground, but his approach is vastly different to Gibney’s serious approach. Theroux has a more mischievous and playful approach and he tries to be objective in his approach.
When he first announced that he was going to make a documentary about scientology Theroux was warned off by his friends and some admirers, who suggested that he would need good lawyers in his camp, especially given the Church’s aggressive stance in protecting its brand and image and its litigious dealing with critics.
Theroux approached the Church to seek approval, but when he was denied access he decided that he would make his own movie about Scientology in collaboration with co-director John Dower, a veteran television documentary filmmaker whose work includes Thrilla In Manila and The Last 48 Hours Of Kurt Cobain, etc. Unable to gain access to Miscavige himself, Theroux hires an actor to play the controversial head of the church, and he captures his scary and abusive personality. He recruited some actors and filmmakers to recreate some of the more famous controversial revelations and confrontations about Scientology operations, some of which included Miscavige himself and their star recruit Hollywood actor Tom Cruise. These include the practices of auditing, which was explored in Going Clear, training, and the controversial and intimidating practice known as “the hole,” which the Church denies.
Theroux also enlists the help of Mark Rathbun, one of the more high profile officers within Scientology to defect and speak out about the organisation, who has since become one of the Church’s most outspoken critics. The former senior executive officer has participated in numerous documentaries and television programs exploring some of the practices of this quasi-religion that was founded by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard. Some of the revelations are indeed quite disturbing and unsettling. The focus is firmly on Rathbun and his eccentric and abrasive personality at times. And at times Theroux turns the questioning on Rathbun, raising the issue of his own culpability in some of the Church’s more nefarious activities.
But Theroux finds himself and his crew being hassled, harassed and even filmed by mysterious people, adherents of the secretive religion. There is a vague air of menace about these strangers who stalk Theroux and even spy on the makeshift studio he has established. This again shows the lengths to which members of the church are prepared to go to in order to protect their brand from criticism. But throughout the film you are never quite sure how much is real and how much is being manipulated for dramatic effect.
This is Theroux’s first feature length documentary, but while his approach may work well on television, when stretched to 90 minutes it seems to lose its way at times. My Scientology Movie is not as hard hitting, comprehensive or as insightful as Gibney’s documentary, but it is certainly a bit more entertaining and engaging. Theroux has a more affable and likeable presence, and his unique approach and self effacing style and low key manner and humorous approach to serious subject will remind many of David Farrier and his recent documentary Tickled. Like Farrier, who faced numerous threats of legal action as a result of his film, Theroux has also faced the threat of legal action from the Church of Scientology, who obviously view him as a dangerous “suppressive person.”