Of all of the Louis Theroux canon to date, my favourite of his contributions to journalism is his description of BBC reporter John Sweeney going “shouty-crackers” when continually hounded by Scientology members when filming a documentary about the church. You can imagine my excitement upon finding out Theroux was to take on the church in a documentary of his own.
Considering there’s been plenty of media coverage on Scientology in the previous couple of years, including Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Alex Gibney’s Oscar-nominated documentary based on it, which revealed some of Scientology’s wackiest beliefs – auditing, dianetics, thetans, Xenu – and how they were SF-inspired constructions pulled from the mind of its pulp-writing founder, L. Ron Hubbard, I was intrigued to see how Theroux would choose to approach this documentary.
So, in light of the unlikely participation of church followers and taking inspiration from a technique used by Joshua Oppenheimer in The Act of Killing, Louis decides to reenact some of the church’s more questionable religious practices and training drills with the help of former “inspector general” (i.e. chief fixer and enforcer) and prominent defector, Marty Rathbun. Rathbun, who featured prominently in Gibney’s documentary, is present for some of this film’s most entertaining and revealing moments – none more so than the auditions they hold to cast actors as some of scientology’s most prominent leaders. Much of the rest of the film is based upon conversations with ex-church members and Louis getting himself up to no good, hanging around outside the church’s buildings with his trademark goofy smile, waving filming permits at visually agitated security personnel.
Theroux teamed up with seasoned producer of Searching for Sugarman and Man on Wire, Simon Chinn, for this film and, while it keeps much of Theroux’s low-key British charm, its production values are distinctly more Hollywood than Theroux’s previous documentaries. There are beautiful cityscapes of LA at dusk and the heavily orchestral soundtrack is remarkably similar to Jonny Greenwood’s music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. This latter point is partly notable because that film follows shadowy cult-like organisations across LA and partly because another of Anderson’s films, The Master, was itself loosely inspired by Scientology’s self-mythologising founder. Noticing this, it struck me how Pynchon-esque scientology is – the cultishness, the wackiness, the paranoia it breeds – and how odd it is that there are many well-respected public figures who continue to be associated with the church, among them Beck, Juliette Lewis, Elizabeth Moss and Isaac Hayes.
I suppose the real target of this documentary – if there is one – is David Miscavige. Invisible and accountable to nobody, he is scientology’s tiny lisping leader, “Chairman of the Board”, and best friend of Tom Cruise. While he is nowhere to be seen, his figure looms large throughout the film and it is the disturbing accusations made by high-ranking defectors of his physical and emotional abuse that provide the greatest insight into the warped mindset of the church’s most active members. There’s a particularly revealing scene where, moments after passing through airport security, Marty Rathbun is harassed by three members of the church’s “senior management” filming and calling him “SP” (suppressive person) – Scientology’s highest insult. When Louis asks another prominent church defector what the motives of these people are, the reply is that the abusers are proving their loyalty to Miscavige, the man who “holds all the power,” in the church, who “could banish them from Scientology with a word.”
One of Theroux’s greatest skills as a documentary maker is to present the blackly comic aspects of his subjects, to draw out the funny side, without making light of their essential moral and intellectual wrongness. Also, his commitment in attempting to portray his subjects as real people with good intentions, is never more apparent than it is in this film. Theroux is continuously thwarted by a high-ranking church member, Catherine Fraser, as he attempts to film outside one of the church’s buildings. Coincidentally, Fraser happens to be the ex-wife of Jefferson Hawkins, one of the contributors to this documentary and author of Counterfeit Dreams, a book about the church and his defection from it. Hawkins, when asked by Theroux, says his ex-wife is “trapped in a not-good system” but knows she is a “good person at heart.” And that’s probably the perception of Scientology most accurately conveyed in this film – well-intentioned people tricked into working for an organisation with a heart of darkness. As funny and ludicrous scientology may seem to us (and is), it has ruined the lives of real people trapped in its beliefs and there are some who may never get out.
Credits: Louis Theroux, Marthy Rathbun, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter, Jeff Hawkins, Tom de Vocht, Marc Headley, Steve Mango, Catherine Fraser
Director: John Dower
Producer: Steven Chinn
DOP: Will Pugh
Music: Dan Jones
Runtime: 99 minutes
My Scientology Movie is available on Colony from Monday 24th October.