Documenting Scientology – too tough a nut to crack?

Dr Sally Marlow on Louis Theroux's 'My Scientology Movie'.

Scientology is a subject ripe for film makers to explore – in the past decade alone there have been three notable documentaries (BBC Panorama’s Scientology and Me in 2007; The Secrets of Scientology following that up in 2010; Alex Gibney’s Going Clear for HBO in 2015); and The Master, a compelling drama based on Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. It’s a subject which keeps on giving, with its irresistible combination of secrecy, a bizarre belief system combining alien life forms with lie detector testing, accusations of violence and corruption, disgruntled former members, and a sprinkling of celebrity stardust in the shape of followers such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Into this crowded arena steps Louis Theroux. What would he add to the mix in his documentary, My Scientology Movie? Louis has a long and distinguished history in getting more from his interviewees than others have been able. His mixture of devastatingly clever naivete alongside a razor-sharp instinct for human behaviour exposes cracks and flaws in villains of modern day such as the Westboro Baptist Church, but also reveals the human side of some of society’s most vulnerable, such as in his documentaries on autism and dementia. However, he sometimes gets it wrong, and anyone who saw his recent examination of himself and his relationship with the late Jimmy Saville would get a glimpse into how failure to get at the truth seems to affect him profoundly.

The holy grail for Scientology documentary makers, of course, would be an interview with somebody currently at the top level of Scientology. Second prize would be access to one of their training centres, or a demonstration by a real live practising Scientologist of real live Scientology equipment and techniques. Scientologists have absolutely no intention of ever allowing any of these to happen, deploying teams of enforcers (known as squirrel busters) to intimidate and harass anyone deemed to be delving into their affairs, whom they label 'suppressive'. The effect of these squirrel busters is so powerful that when John Sweeney was filming for Panorama he spectacularly lost his cool, and at one point seemed to be losing his mind. Sweeney starts his second documentary by saying if you investigate Scientologists, they will come for you, and freely admits they got to him in his first documentary, apologising profusely for his own behaviour under provocation. What’s really interesting is how and why these people were able to elicit such a violent reaction from such a seasoned, respected reporter.

This behaviour by the Scientologists, following Louis and his team, harassing them, filming them, trying to throw them off land which doesn’t belong to the Church of Scientology, provides Louis an opportunity to do things differently. He turns his cameras on them, refuses to be bullied or intimidated, and keeps his faux-innocent line of questioning up. In the end it is the Scientologists who lose their cool, not our intrepid explorer in Scientology land. This makes from some hilarious if unsettling moments, such as when the squirrel busters demand Louis stops filming them, and Louis in return demands the same from them: “Stop filming me”, “No, you stop filming me”, “No, you stop filming me”, No, you stop filming me”….

But there is a sense in My Scientology Movie that Theroux is also frustrated, not so much by the squirrel busters, but by his inability to get access to the inner sanctum of Scientology. He has limited tools to bring something new – disgruntled ex-Scientologists who are already on the record; alarming footage of Tom Cruise discussing Scientology that’s freely available on YouTube; video archive of Scientology conventions; and shots of Scientology literature and learning materials showing its extraordinary belief system. Faced with more of the same, Theroux hits on a tactic which works brilliantly, thanks to one of those he recruits to help him with it. He casts Andrew Perez as David Miscavige, Scientology’s heir to L. Ron Hubbard, a man accused of violent and bullying behaviour. Perez then stars in a re-enactment of a scene in an alleged punishment building known as “The Hole”, as described by a previous senior Scientologist Mark “Marty” Rathbun. Perez is utterly convincing, and it is powerful stuff.

Much of the film however drifts, and there is a sense that Louis doesn’t quite get to do what he wants to do. Plus there is an uneasiness towards the end, when in the absence of having any current Scientologists to probe, he turns instead on Rathbun, previously his ally. Perhaps Theroux was driven by his self-confessed gullibility in his earlier documentary with Jimmy Saville, and is over-compensating by going for Rathbun? Whatever the motivation, the result is confused – Rathbun is an easy target in many ways, but he’s not the stated target of the film.

The two Sweeney documentaries have already revealed how powerfully Scientology deals with and impacts on those investigating it or rejecting it. Going Clear was a masterful interpretation of everything that can be gleaned from ex-Scientologists, of information already in the public domain, and of new snippets of material, painstakingly unearthed. Without actually gaining access to the Church itself, it’s difficult to see what Theroux could have added. My Scientology Movie is aptly named – it reveals much about Louis Theroux, and is indeed his movie, but it’s a complement to the existing work on Scientology, not a definitive statement.

- Reviewed by Dr Sally Marlow, National Addiction Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London.

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