I, like a lot of people, don’t like scientology. I think it’s nonsense – nonsense propagated by arrogant people in an effort to coerce the desperate into giving them power and money. When I heard Louis Theroux was making a documentary about it, I was very excited. I’m a big fan of Theroux’s and have been following his documentaries since I was a teenager. I was sure My Scientology Movie would bring something new and exciting to the ongoing takedown of the church of scientology.
However, honestly, I think I would have been disappointed in Theroux had he used this opportunity to just give scientology itself a good kicking. Not only because I believe him to be a fair minded documentarian, but because we already know all the bad stuff about the church. What we want now are the reasons why people still continue to follow it and support it, we want to know how we can take them down.
My Scientology Movie asks these questions, and while they don’t lead to valuable answers they do provoke something better and more entertaining: the church’s own documentary on Louis Theroux. A bold and ultimately idiotic decision on their behalf which (ironically) makes them look even worse and which inevitably saves this rather vacant documentary from being a lot about nothing.
No Going Clear
If you’ve seen Alex Gibney’s Going Clear or John Sweeney’s The Secrets Of Scientology you’ll already have a strong idea of what goes on in the church of scientology. You’ll know that it was created by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, that a few people grew into a mass following, that they rake in enormous amounts of money, and that under the leadership of David Miscavige they have been accused of false imprisonment, physical abuse and even the covering up of child sexual abuse. You’ll also know that in the church, Tom Cruise is a pretty big deal.
Unfortunately, and it’s with a heavy heart, I have to tell you that My Scientology Movie is not as good as either of these two aforementioned documentaries. It doesn’t go into the depths that they do, and it certainly doesn’t confront the matter as head on as needed. However, at least, there is a good reason for this. Theroux spent some years trying to get into the church of scientology to ask questions. As far back as the nineties, he has been working on them. In that time both Gibney and Sweeney overtook him, both using a different but admirable approaches in taking the church on in battle.
As Gibney was making Going Clear at the same time as My Scientology Movie had the go ahead it was decided by director John Dower that the film needed to take a different tack. The result of which is that My Scientology Movie is not a serious film, instead it is humourous and playful. With the church’s former inspector general Marty Rathbun to guide them, Theroux and his production experiment with scientology techniques, create re-ennactments, all the while visiting ex-members of the church of scientology and poking the bear by taking frequent visits to properties owned by the church.
My Scientology Movie, by it nature, is as much about Theroux as it is about scientology. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Louis Theroux, he is a BBC documentary maker and presenter who (while making more serious films in recent years) made his mark with his Weird Weekends series’. Theroux’s trademark is that he is curious, incredibly mild-mannered, and tolerant of even the most offensive subjects (he’s made two documentaries about the Westboro Baptist Church).
I’ve always regarded Theroux as the Columbo of documentarians. He likes to act natural and play innocent – never overtly pissing people off. He bides his time, waiting for his subjects to give him what he wants. However, in this case it could be seen as a bit of a shortfall in his interviewing technique. In My Scientology Movie ex-scientologists (or at least ex-members of the church) open up to him quite willingly, however, Marty Rathbun remains something of a mystery.
Theroux is never able to break Marty Rathbun. However, he does for once, encourage us to think about and consider the church of scientology’s whistleblowers. Yes, they’re throwing light on what happens in the church, however, they were also a part of it. And none more so than Marty Rathbun, who by his own admission, beat up people and had others followed by private investigators. While Theroux never gets Rathbun to confess or truly open up to what his problems are with the church, Rathbun’s enjoyment in his auditioning of ‘David Miscaviges’ and of the re-enactments themselves does sow a seed: doesn’t it look like he’s enjoying this? Does he miss this? Does he think the church is wrong? Or is he simply out for revenge?
A Documentary In The Loosest Sense
My Scientology Movie won’t really show you anything you haven’t seen before. The same ex-members of the church appear and the same stories are told. I think Theroux and his team knew that was all they had when production began. In fact, in the Q&A after the film, director John Dower discussed how desperate they were for contributions. Combined with the fact that they didn’t want to just retread Gibney and Sweeney’s ground you can understand why the documentary takes the unusual course that it does.
My Scientology Movie is essentially a behind the scenes look at the making of re-enactments based on Rathbun’s information. This is paired with a group of young actors ‘trying out’ scientology tests and the occasional conversation with an ex-member of the church. While the general population is aware of the tests, the conversations still offer nothing new. The planning of the re-enactments (along with the scenes themselves) are really nothing special. Any intrigue that can be garnered from these occasions is found in the devotion of actor Andrew Perez (who plays Miscavige). His involvement provides a physical subject for Theroux to analyse, while his natural curiosity provokes new questions and ideas about Miscavige’s behaviour. However, any new information still feels pretty pay in comparison to what we learned from Going Clear.
While not offering anything new, My Scientology Movie has some very funny moments. Theroux’s response to the church and the nameless people who film him is incredibly entertaining. He is unflinching and so comic that it completely deflates any power they think they have or that we are afraid of them having. Unlike other documentaries that show the church to be a powerful and scary institution, My Scientology Movie shows these church members as they should be shown, as naïve and arrogant people. In Theroux’s face off with them we’re forced to realise something very important. That for all their talk there’s really nothing up their sleeves, except a fear of Miscavige. And for that they should probably be pitied.
My Scientology Movie is like a rough framework for a documentary. It has bits and pieces of interesting stories and information but it’s pretty weak in narrative and impact. Additionally, it provides nothing we don’t already know or haven’t seen before. However, it does question the reliability of Marty Rathbun as scientology’s whistleblower. What he is thinking, we can’t really be sure, but Theroux at least tries to extract an answer.
Where My Scientology Movie actually succeeds is in the moments of humour it garners from Theroux’s approach to the church’s filmmakers, which are incredibly delightful. Still, it goes without saying that if you want to see a film about scientology, you should watch Going Clear, or at a close second, The Secrets Of Scientology. If, however, you like Louis Theroux and would like a laugh at scientology’s expense you might just have some fun with this.
Have you seen My Scientology Movie? Do you think it adds to the discussion around the church of scientology?
This review is based on a special screening and live Q & A transmitted to cinemas on 7th October 2016 as part of London’s Literature Festival. A general release date has not been given for the US or UK, however, the film is showing in special screenings at some cinemas and festivals. Follow this link for more information.
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