If asked whether you could name a journalist or documentary maker, presumably many young people will come up stumped. Except from the likes of David Attenborough, the name most students are interested in is Louis Theroux. Whether that is due to the streaming mogul, Netflix, exposing a new generation to his infamous past of rapping on an episode of Weird Weekends, or growing up with his charm and ability to gain answers, he definitely has a way of captivating his audience.
His latest documentary entitled, ‘My Scientology Movie’ was no different being a truly funny, informative and even tense in places, insight into the enigmatic religion that is Scientology. Since being created by Sci-Fi author, L. Ron Hubbard, the religion has grown, with its base in Los Angeles where the documentary is set. Unfortunately, Louis was denied access into Scientology to make his film, which inevitably raised the question for both Louis and the audience of how can he make a documentary about a subject that he cannot be witness to or investigate fully?
His vision, shared by director John Dower, of reconstructing some of the most extreme events that allegedly took place within the church became the key basis of the film. The main source behind these reconstructions was former Scientologist, Marty Rathbun, who was the Attorney General for the church. He was accused of carrying out some of the most violent incidents although not even Louis with his trademark long pauses could elicit further details on the matter. In a gripping scene Marty demonstrated, using a team of actors, the practices scientologists undergo in order to achieve a believed divine goal. This included bizarre activities such as screaming at an object placed on an adjacent chair.
Although the documentary was not the overt expose into Scientology I was expecting, it still provided coverage of the fundamentals of Scientology, such as current leader David Miscavige’s belief that he is going to save the entire universe. After being denied interviews, Louis improvised by using actors to play the role of Miscavige to recreate the alleged explosive incidents that the church has always denied. One such recreation was very distressing and emotionally effective in conveying the fear reported by ex-members to the audience. The film successfully depicted the immense power one man has within this religion, and explored his relationship with celebrities such as Tom Cruise, who recently praised Scientology on the red carpet.
However, Marty is scorned by the Scientologists as a traitor and accused of being bitter by the church and therefore is not a very reliable source for the majority of the film to depend on. Arguably the documentary itself was biased, by exploring the negative sides of Scientology predominantly through talking to people who have left the religion, also known as defectors. The only interview with a current member was an exposé of the consumerist side of Scientology, demonstrating how people are ‘manipulated’ into spending thousands of dollars on books, to achieve higher status within the church.
However, with credit to Louis, he did approach the Church for access to their side of the story, and when faced with impromptu encounters with members of Scientology he did attempt to hear their views, but they were reluctant to participate. The validity of his intentions are questionable, but Marty did provide an interesting glimpse into how tough life was after leaving scientology, through the capture of incidents of harassment he has had with ‘Squirrel busters’, an organisation I was previously unaware existed.
Overall the documentary is an insightful depiction of the life of a Scientologist, in which you learn some of the stages you have to complete in order to reach this perceived idealism. The entertaining portrayal of the secretiveness of the church itself left me just as fascinated with Scientology’s impenetrable exterior as Louis himself.
Image “Tom Cruise” by Gage Skidmore licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0