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.
What comes across from the discussions and the re-enactments of historical moments in Scientology are these: the teaching of how to apply pressure to others for whatever reason (recruitment, member discipline, revenge on former Scientologists, or "suppressive persons"), and just how petty, how very small, its leadership has been. Miscavige, a secretive man who shows himself primarily in celebratory Scientology videos of the Church's great successes, is small not only in stature but in self, a Lord Farquaad of a leader whose petty whims require indulgence, and whose temper tantrums are physically harmful to Scientology staff who submit to it out of fear of the future lives that could be affected by not keeping him happy ("Sea Org" clergy sign BILLION year work contracts, shown in the film). Former Seq Org members recall scenes acted by Theroux' cast of Miscavige shoving them against walls, forcing them into sleeping in cells, and even crawling on the floor in humiliation to satisfy his need to punish them. Theroux and Rathbun believe that much of the orchestrated public attack by Scientologists of former Scientology members exists to satisfy Miscavige's ego.
It's a wildly fascinating film. While little is revealed of, say, Scientology "church services" or seminar content, and while there's avoidance of the now publicly discussed stories of Xenu and the like as well as of celebrity departures from the Church, there's much presentation of something deeper: a religious organization whose public operations are a combination of recruitment hustle and of fear. The former members involved consider it a dangerous cult; if it's not, at least it shows itself as frightened of light shining upon it. When Theroux attempts, repeatedly, to hand-deliver a response to a letter from Scientology attorneys, the Church's security, administrative staff, shadowers with cameras, and calls to the police come out of the woodwork and simply don't stop, and they begin claiming that they're producing a documentary about Theroux. The portrait presented of the Church is unflattering but it feels true. And in an hour and a half, you'll feel much more educated about Scientology's behaviors, but longing for more revelation.
Theroux' style is intriguing, and his use of actors, clearly acting, trying to recapture the recollections of various former Scientologists of different events is a very different sort of footage that is impossible not to watch. His former work - interviews with porn stars, documentaries of tough guys in prison, allowing himself to be manhandled in professional wrestling - all feels as if it's come to play once more, all of those prior skills being brought to handling a larger, tougher opponent and coming off as a David to Scientology's Goliath. It's a documentary that needs to be seen, not only for the topic but for Theroux himself, a man who's mastered being part of his story without overpowering the topic.
And with the film's release, we'll no doubt discover just how many reviewers are flagged by the Church for daring to admire Theroux, though the admiration is justly deserved for this work.
Opens at Tribeca on April 17, and in release thereafter.