Believe it or not, before watching this documentary I didn’t know very much about Scientology. I had not read Lawrence Wright’s source text, and knew only the big facts. When Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was released, which focuses on a religious movement known as ‘The Cause’ and features an individual surely inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, I realised that this ‘religion’ wasn’t as new as I originally thought. When Tom Cruise became a celebrity ambassador during his off-the-rails period in the early 2000’s Scientology was very much in the media spotlight. Little did I know of the period of time this troubling Church had been at the forefront of speculation and investigation.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is directed by Alex Gibney, a prolific documentarian known for Taxi to the Dark Side, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and more recently We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and The Armstrong Lie. In addition to Going Clear, he has two other films screening at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. Being so prolific means that not all of Gibney’s films are effective (see the data-heavy but shallow and emotionally vacant WikiLeaks), but this is a man dedicated to delving into the bowels of history, enlisting an extensive team of researchers to investigate some of the world’s most fascinating individuals and troubling conspiracies.
Going Clear is a compelling and remarkably well organised film, offered a solid structure by Wright’s text. It chronicles the entire history of Scientology (and its inner workings) from L. Ron Hubbard’s conception in 1953, through to its current mass global economic influence and strong-armed defence against outspoken former members and increasingly growing number of critics. But, Gibney manages to relay a lot of easily-digestible information through a variety of cinematic methods. The story of Scientology is told almost exclusively through exceptional archival footage, including costly-looking gatherings chaired by David Miscavige, and accompanied by Gibney’s clear, direct narration. But, it is the personal injections – interviews with ex-devotees who talk about their experiences – that really give this film the elevation on the emotional level.
One speaker throughout is Crash director Paul Haggis, a decade-spanning member of Scientology. He bravely reveals just how brainwashed he was, how he had naively followed the instructions of the Church to avoid reading anything online about the Church, and what it was that eventually inspired him to leave. Other interviews with former high-ranking officials like Mike Rinder, Marty Rathbun, Tom De Vochte and actor Jason Beghe, are immensely troubling. This is the vitally important element of this film. The abuse that took place within the Sea Org program is horrifying, and hearing how one woman escaped the Church when she realised that her young child was being mistreated was a heartbreaking confession.
But, is the film successful in filling Lawrence Wright’s aims of identifying what drives people to this brand of belief? Yes, and no. Some of the long-term devotees can’t even explain how they became so attached. Is there really an answer? Personally, I didn’t mind that it fails to broach this subject with any clarity, because I found everything fascinating. Scientology was set up during a post-war period when people were curious and seeking out some alternative reading to the meaning to their existence. With a man like Hubbard preaching the choir – a man with the gift of inviting people to listen whenever he talked – lost souls were lured in.The mechanics of the Church are baffling to anyone on the outside – the ideologies of one of Hubbard’s discarded sci-fi stories. We are informed that it took members years, thousands of dollars of donations and hundreds of hours of slave labour, before they were even told about the history of the Church and where all their ‘beliefs’ originated from. There is a reason.
Gibney is dredging from a very deep well of history. He may only skim the surface, but this is a terrific documentary. While digging up dirt on Miscavige and revealing the extent of Cruise’s role as an endorser seems to be Gibney’s primary aim in the second half, he doesn’t lose sight of the enormous effect this religion has had on its members, and makes it intimate as well as large-scale. Miscavige, Cruise and John Travolta (the first ‘celebrity member’), understandably, did not agree to be interviewed for the film, but this leaves a viewer with a staggering amount to chew on.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Alex Gibney
Writer(s): Alex Gibney, Lawrence Wright (book)
Starring: Lawrence Wright, Mike Rinder, Marty Rathbun, Paul Haggis
Runtime: 119 minutes
Remaining SFF Screening Dates: Wednesday 10 June 8.35pm (Event Cinemas George Street)