2015 in review: Burning Scientology

Going Clear (M). Director: Alex Gibney. 121 minutes

If you're going to apply a blowtorch to an institution as wealthy, as litigious and as notoriously aggressive in the face of criticism as the Church of Scientology, you might best be advised to first apply a magnifying glass. There is no doubt that a power of research underpins veteran American documentarian Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. The film plays out like a gripping Hollywood drama, but with the cogency of an academic paper.

Gibney's primary source is author Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winner (for 2006's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11), interviewed 200 current and former Scientologists for his book. He serves as producer of Gibney's film and appears as a talking head, alongside a raft of former high-ranking Scientologists, from whom Gibney draws testimony of the most persuasive kind.

So armed, Gibney details the dark side of the movement: its dubious tax-exempt status; allegations of psychological and physical abuse of current members (including a surreal depiction of a brutal game of 'musical chairs' played to the tune of Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody') and of harassment of former members; the bizarre, quasi-sci-fi belief system; and heartbreaking, sadistic practices such as 'disconnection' from alleged apostates, which sometimes amounts to the forced separation of families.

But Gibney is equally interested in unpacking the nature of belief in Scientology: what draws people to it, and also what drives them away. Hana Eltringham Whitfield, an original member of Scientology's devout Sea Org religious order, was enamoured with the charismatic Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, but came to see him as a tyrant. Several high-ranking Scientologists say that after years of loyal service they could no longer stomach the institutionalised abuse they say they witnessed.

Oscar winning filmmaker Paul Haggis exited in 2009 after 30 years, after the movement supported anti-marriage-equality legislation in California (two of Haggis' daughters are gay). He details his experiences of the methodology of Scientology's therapeutic 'audits', and the appeal of this process to him as a troubled young writer trying to make his way in the world. He admits that for many years he had remained wilfully ignorant of external media scrutiny that might have caused him to doubt his devotion.

These personal perspectives add some emotional and pragmatic muscle to the 'juicier' elements of the film, such as its consideration of movie stars John Travolta and Tom Cruise's many years of membership. Scientology's association with Hollywood is perhaps the thing that most fascinates a prurient public; Gibney examines Travolta and Cruise's involvement in the context of the movement's longstanding strategy of recruiting celebrities as mediums of mass proselytization.

The film digs, too, into the history of Scientology's founder, the enigmatic and eccentric science fiction author Hubbard, in order to illuminate the movement's beginnings and ideological underpinnings; and the character and style of current leader David Miscavige, a onetime Scientology 'prodigy' who assumed leadership following his mentor Hubbard's death in 1987. Unsurprisingly, neither Miscavige nor any Scientology spokesperson deigns to lend their voice to Gibney's revelatory account.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Scientology, Going Clear, Alex Gibney, Lawrence Wright, Tom Cruise, John Travolta

 

 

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