I don’t know how well known documentary maker Louis Theroux is outside of the UK, but there he’s been a TV mainstay for around 2 decades, frequently producing films that delve into stranger subcultures and lesser-known or more confounding aspects of society; usually in the United States. He’s apparently wanted to make one on that most infamous of modern religions; The Church of Scientology for some time and has now deemed the subject appropriate for his first foray into feature filmmaking with My Scientology Movie, which is presented and written by Theroux and directed by John Dower.
Of all the subjects Theroux could have chosen for his move into features, I was initially a little surprised to see that he’d gone for Scientology, mainly because I wondered what he would find to cover that hadn’t been in Alex Gibney’s tremendous Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief last year. While Gibney and Theroux’s styles are very different, Theroux might well have wound up with a lot of the same sources, and the few bits of footage publicly available from Church events.
While My Scientology Movie does indeed (briefly) utilise some of the same archive footage as Going Clear, I’m pleased to report that they are otherwise very different films, and both worthy of attention, though not quite equally. The title chosen proves to be quite an apt one, Going Clear opted to try and document the history of the church and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, up to and including how it operates today, My Scientology Movie on the other hand is a far more personal affair. That’s not to say that Theroux has any prior relationship with Scientology, he doesn’t, but he’s front and centre on screen throughout. Like some the work of a Nick Broomfield, a fellow documentarian whose style Theroux’s bears a lot of similarity to, this is film that’s as much about the making of itself as its actual subject matter. However in this case such an approach works very well, as simply demonstrating how the Church of Scientology responds to learning that a film being made about it speaks volumes.
Now based in Los Angeles, Theroux begins by meeting with some prominent former Scientologists, primarily Mark Rathbun, who held a senior official position in the church for part of his 27 years in it before acrimoniously departing. Theroux seems primarily interested in learning about the character and operating style of David Miscavige, the church’s leader since the 1987. The elusive Miscavige, who the film reminds us has only given one TV interview and that was in 1992, has been the subject of rumours that he physically abuses those under him and carefully runs the church like a cult leader, something which several interviewees here confirm.
I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone to know that Miscavige himself does not appear in this film, and part of Theroux’s plan is to try and recreate an infamous incident of him verbally and physically abusing a group of younger scientologists during a bizarre training exercise. He begins by auditioning many actors to play Miscavige, footage of which is shown before he selects the one for the job. Almost as soon as he’s begun work on the project though, word gets out through unknown means to the church itself and he starts to receive threatening letters accusing him of bigotry.
Many of the film’s most memorable moments from then on occur as he attempts to contact members of the Church or just shoot in areas close to where they own property. Each time he’s almost immediately greeted by intimidating scientologists threatening to call the police if he doesn’t leave. The tactics they’re shown to use include declaring public roads to be either closed or their private property, and surrounding their buildings with military-like fences decked out with bright flashing lights and multiple cameras.
One of Theroux’s greatest strengths has always been his ability to talk in a natural manner with people who hold…how shall I put this…unusual viewpoints, and he puts that to great use here in the few encounters he has with Scientologists yelling threats at him. Never remotely fazed by such actions, Louis stands his ground while politely attempting to instigate a dialogue with them and if that fails, their hired cameramen. His complete lack of fear in these instances leads to some quite comedic moments, such as when the police show up and appear amusingly sympathetic to his position.
Even with this comedy edge, the film doesn’t shy away from emphasising that these tactics of effectively stalking critical voices hold far more sinister implications, as happens to Mark near the end of the film in two separate encounters in which some Scientologists truly do come across as dangerous lunatics with their threats against him. Louis being Louis though, he can’t let Mark completely off the hook and doesn’t let him forget that he played a part in such operations while with the church.
Consistently entertaining, and conveying a number of frightening implications, I can say that I enjoyed this movie throughout but at the same time I don’t really feel that I learned anything much about Scientology that I didn’t already know. If you know nothing about it other than the fact that Tom Cruise (who gets many mentions here) is a member, this could maybe prove more educational, but all it really did for me was provide further evidence to cement knowledge of the church’s troublesome practices.
Louis Theroux has covered considerably more hard-hitting and lesser known material in his TV work, so I’m still not entirely sure why this was the subject that finally gave him the push to feature films, but I’m always happy to see more form him nonetheless. There’s easily room for both but if you want to see an informative overview of The Church of Scientology, watch Going Clear, if you want an amusing/frightening look at their current mode of operating and dealing with criticism, see My Scientology Movie.