From prolific Oscar Winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Freakonomics and dozens of others) comes the much talked about new film Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, one of three films Gibney has showcased at this year’s Sydney Film Festival (the others were Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and Mr Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, which was reviewed HERE).
The film chronicles the origins and destinations of the controversial Church of Scientology, from its tax dodging founder L Ron Hubbard, to the celebrities that have embraced it, the lives it has tried to destroy and the people who went along for the ride. It brings us to the present day, where David Miscavige – portrayed in the film as a megalomaniac – presides over the Church, creating a reported culture of fear and intimidation to maintain the church’s hold on its believers.
The documentary, which screened earlier in the year on HBO in the US (and receives a cinematic release in Australia from Thursday), is a spectacularly produced piece, putting the life story of Scientology into an easy to digest, though sometimes difficult to watch, two hour film. Following years of TV specials, books (including Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book of the same name, on which this film is based), South Park episodes and a parade of articles from those who have separated from the Church, it’s perhaps the most complete account of the practices of Scientology that has ever been assembled on film. This has been made possible by the fact that in recent years, some of the Church’s longest serving worshippers and even Church executives (including former second in command Mark Rathbun and Australia’s own Mike Rinder, who became an international spokesperson from the Church), have come out to speak out against what they now see as a “brainwashing… cult”. Some have done this in spite of NDAs and fear of litigious action against them. Others, of course, remain silent for the same reason.
For anyone who has followed the stories of the church in recent years, there won’t be too much you wouldn’t have heard before. Even the infamous South Park Episode (which ended with the character of Tom Cruise threatening to sue them in England, something that kind of actually happened), summed up a lot of what the documentary covers about the church’s methods in a surprisingly accurate fashion. But the breadth of early footage of the church’s founder, Science Fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, as well as accounts from one of his wives, and the array of content that has been put together from their later years is astounding. And much has likely not been seen before.
Given the high profile of the documentary, and the litigious nature of the subject, Gibney has been careful to back everything up with raw testimony. So there isn’t much attention payed to the more scandalous rumours that have surfaced over the years – from the treatment of Miscavige’s own wife to the covering up of other abuses – but that would have done little to strengthen the piece, only adding unnecessary fuel to the Church’s fire (which, judging from reports in the US, may result in this very reviewer being contacted by a Scientology spokesperson upon its publication).
Those who aren’t familiar with the story will find it an engrossing one to experience. There’s little argument against what Gibney presents here, and ultimately the corruption and mistreatment that exists is shocking and rather terrifying. The very nature of the “Sea Organisation” or “Sea Org” is like something straight out of a JJ Abrams plot. One must take many of the accusations with a grain of salt, of course, as some of the people interviewed even tell you themselves that they’re good liars – having been employed for years by Scientology to do just that. I was reminded at times of Orson Welles’ in F for Fake, saying, “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is “art”.”. And while it’s clearly a one-sided account, the footage of Scientology members speaking in media shows that all we would have seen, had active Scientologists been interviewed, would have been denials of any and all allegations. So the message and intent remains the same, regardless of any presumptions we can make there about a bias or agenda.
So while the film may not have broken any new ground in the “what”, where it really shines is in the “why”. Why do people get into Scientology in the first place, and why do they stay? The first instance seems clear: it actually does some good, for certain people, at the start. They feel better about themselves, about their lives, and it brings them into this ladder of enlightenment, with each step coming at nominal fee. But the higher up the ladder they go, the more exposed they become to the more absurd aspects of the organisations beliefs as well as their practices in keeping believers in line (not to mention keeping the money coming in). Often this involved hard labour, self-permitted imprisonment (I’ll let the film explain this) and the breaking up of families (essentially separating Scientologists from anyone who was perceived as a threat to their beliefs, someone they referred to as a “SP”, or a “Suppressive Person”).
By this point, someone is either so “brainwashed” they can’t see the reality of the situation, or, there is something more sinister at play. Especially for some of the more high profile members of the Church, the fact that the church keeps what are essentially dossiers on all the deepest, darkest secrets of their members may amount to one thing: “leave us, and we will tell the world about this”. Or, in layman’s terms: “Blackmail”. For someone like Oscar winning screenwriter and producer Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash), who speaks at length about his surprising 34 years as a Scientologist in the film, it really does have to come to the point where the alternative of staying in the Church was worse than any repercussions from leaving. For him, that catalyst was learning about the treatment by the church of his daughter, and their stance on gay marriage. And what’s clear from all interviews after they leave the church is one common connection: embarrassment. Embarrassment that they stayed for as long as they did. Embarrassment that they let themselves fall victim to what they see on retrospect to be a “scam”. Embarrassment that they ignored the criticism.
These revelations of the “why” really are fascinating, because it does explain why some of these high profile people are, at times, so positively outspoken about it all. Because they may feel they don’t have a choice. Suddenly, *that* video of Tom Cruise in a black turtleneck, which features briefly inn the film, may be as much a cry for help as it is a message from a madman. In that respect, the film ends up being rather compassionate towards its followers, regardless of their stature.
Gibney is a terrific filmmaker, time and time again delivering well articulated documentaries that are full of eye opening, well shot interviews, accompanied by a barrage of impressive archival material with a solid score. Going Clear is no exception, and is a must see film of the year. As you can see by this review, it’s a film that will keep you thinking long after you leave the cinema. And for fans of the horror genre, it’s also, potentially, the most terrifying piece you’ll see on the screen this year. You can’t help but ask yourself: how is this allowed to happen?
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Going Clear screened and had its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival. It will receive a wider release from Thursday, June 18th.