BWW Review: MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE to Wow Tribeca Film Festival
Scientology fascinates us for two reasons. One is that it's rumored to be a cult with near-science-fiction undertones... or perhaps overtones, given that it was created by famed late Science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard ("LRH" to Scientologists). The other is that it's notoriously secretive, and is known to harass those who try to investigate it as well as those who leave it. Taking the Amish tradition of "shunning" to a new level, former Scientologists are not only lost to their still-Scientologist family members but may find themselves attacked forcefully, sometimes to (and in) their faces, by current Scientologists.
British journalist Louis Theroux has tried for some years to make a film about Scientology, but was rebuffed at every turn by the Church of Scientology. Together with director and co-writer John Dower, he's instead produced the intriguing documentary, MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE, that premiered at the London Film Festival and is this coming week appearing at the Tribeca Film Festival. Rather than being filled with celebrity ex-Scientologists such as Paul Haggis and Leah Rimini hawking themselves as much as their stories of leaving the Church, it's a story of his own harassment by the Church while trying to film, and of former Scientology leadership who have left the Church and shared their experiences of exploitation by the top leadership, particularly Hubbard's successor, David Miscavige.
The story's told compellingly, with Theroux, seeking understanding, actually casting actors - the casting efforts are shown - to play Miscavige and Scientology's most famous member, Tom Cruise, to act out scenes described by the former Church leaders, including former Church Inspector General and public Scientology critic Marty Rathbun. The scenes not only depict vividly stories that have been told as anecdotes in the past, but allow Theroux to question his interviewees, such as Rathbun and Tom De Vocht, about their recollections of these experiences and the accuracy of memories. Actor Steven Mango, who has filmed his own testimonial near-documentary of his life in Scientology also appears, adding some real poignancy: he explains that he joined the Church because of ads carefully placed in Hollywood trade magazines suggesting that actors would get better breaks - and achieve Tom Cruise's success -- from attending certain seminars, while we see actors from a casting call auditioning to "become" Miscavige and Cruise on screen.
As word gets out during filming of Theroux' BBC documentary that it is taking place, we see live footage of Scientology reactions: their famed letters from attorneys, the emergence of private detectives tailing Theroux and company, groups of Scientologists harassing Theroux and Rathbun on the street, public access roads to Scientology's Gold Base headquarters being blocked, Scientology staff attempting to sic police on Theroux and his cameramen. It's an ugly, confrontational picture at these moments, handled splendidly by Theroux' calm and his backbone. When filmed by Scientologists seeking to harass, Theroux simply films back, and you're likely to cheer at the sight of harassers backing down and backing away at his cameraman pacing quietly towards them.