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Carefully 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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Existing comments

This review is a good example of a habit of certain writers which always drives me nuts. At slightly past the half way mark, five persons, all bar one previously unknown to me, are mentioned, however four of them are adequately described thus entailing no interruption to the flow of the text. The four are veteran American documentarian Alex Gibney; author Lawrence Wright; original member of the cult Hana Eltringham Whitfield; and founder L. Ron Hubbard. Although three of these were unknown to me their descriptions easily enabled me to locate them within the story but then we are hit with this sentence: “Several of Miscavige’s right hand men etc.” Thinking that miscavige looked somewhat Latin I thought, what the heck is that, but then casting my mind back to Miss Hamly’s English classes (crikey, how long ago was that?) I said, no, the initial capital M and the possessive apostrophe indicate that it is not a “that” but a “who” so I cast my eye back over what I had already read thinking I had missed a prior mention of this “who” but to no avail. No trouble, I thought, easy enough to do a quick internet search (it’s no longer necessary to wait until the next time you visit the local library to seek such information, nowadays it’s just a mouse click away; instant gratification isn’t always a bad thing) and what did I find? That one David Miscavige is the CEO of the Church of Scientology. Not until the second last sentence does our esteemed reviewer reveal this important piece of information but why, oh why, did he not tell us at the first mention and save me the trouble of consulting Wikipedia?

Paul | 09 July 2015  

Hi Paul - Sorry about that. 'Miscavige's right hand men' was a remnant from an earlier draft that I neglected to edit out. Thanks for picking it up. I've amended the copy now to just refer to 'high-ranking Scientologists'.

Tim Kroenert | 09 July 2015  

I sat with others last week watching, occasionally laughing, then groaning, as Alex Gibney dismantled this appalling cult that has bullied its way into tax-exempt status and now holds a real-estate portfoliio that makes Donald Trump look like small change. Preying on the weak and vulnerable, using psycho-babble to encourage people to open up and divulge everything, and then record it for future reference and possible blackmail material, Scientology is about as evil as it can get short of doing what ISIS does. One question that has never been answered for me: Why do they use the Cross and the word "church" when they have nothing to do with Christianity. Jesus is, of course, never mentioned. It was a tough two hours, but I encourage people to go and see it. I don't think I'll watch another Tom Cruise movie again!

Paul in Sydney | 09 July 2015  

Alex Gibney prepared this film in secret over two years. He then came to the Church requesting a blind interview with no indication of any of the allegations he had compiled. Both Gibney and HBO refused to consider any judicial rulings, documents, video footage or direct interviews undermining their pre-conceived premise, instead of first hand witness evidence he relied on myths spun by the same handful of bitter, expelled former Church officials whose stories have for years unraveled, often in courtrooms. Indeed, some have been gone from the Church at least a decade or three. They know nothing of the Church today. So the film contains no input at all from practicing Scientologists, save for a few moments of illegally pirated video footage. Gibney opted to regurgitate myths originating in supermarket tabloids and the Church responded on: http://www.freedommag.org/going-clear/videos/letters-to-alex-gibney.html As to Mr. Haggis, he is exploiting his tenuous connection with Scientology to grab headlines – the truth is that he was an inactive Scientologist for more than 30 years until he orchestrated a disingenuous “departure” in 2009 aimed solely at getting media attention.

Vicki Dunstan | 09 July 2015  

Thank you Vicki Dunstan for your perspective. For those who don't know, Vicki is the president of the Church of Scientology in Australia.

Tim Kroenert | 09 July 2015  

Thanks, Tim, for alerting us to Vicki Dunstan's role as president of the Church of Scientology in Australia. Readers might also benefit from the transcript of the ABC Lateline report of 18/05/2010, "Scientology president's daughter slams 'toxic' church" at http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2010/s2903129.htm

Peter Johnstone | 09 July 2015  

Thank you Tim Kroenert for pointing that out!! Scientology is an evil that must be wiped off the Earth.

Lol yes | 09 July 2015  

So what's the difference between Scientology and Catholicism's tax-free status and real estate portfolio? I'm play the devil's advocate here, but that's the mainstream attitude commonly found among secular/atheist commentators .

AURELIUS | 09 July 2015  

Hi AURELIUS, Its a bit of a silly question, right? One is recognised as a religion, the other is a cult. Sure there similarities but I go to a Catholic church from time to time and I have never had to pull out even $1 to hear the word. I guess I will be up for at least $100,000 before I really hear the world with the cult of Scientology. Its a money making scam in my mind and not a religion. They bulldozed the IRS to give them tax status and then used that to say they are religion but they are any but a religion, ponzi or similar would be more like it.

Dee | 25 July 2015  

No need to explain anything to me , Dee. I am also Catholic. But nothing is free, even in the Catholic Church. And why should the Catholic Church have any higher moral authority to claim to be a religion than Scientology, considering the damage it's done. My parents paid for my education in a Catholic school where I witnessed several of my school mates being sexually abused over a period of 3 years, and nobody stood up and did anything.

AURELIUS | 31 July 2015  

Surely Dee part of what Aurelius is asking, if I understand him correctly, is why should either have tax-free status, especially in the light of their massive real estate holdings? And how would you persuade a 'secular/atheist' commentator of the strength of your position?

Ginger Meggs | 03 August 2015  

...what led him to say what he did I can't recall - but in so many words Hubbard said: "I'd like to start a religion. That's where the money is!" L. Ron Hubbard to Lloyd A. Eshbach, in 1949; as quoted by Eshbach in his autobiography Over My Shoulder: Reflections On A Science Fiction Era (1983) ISBN 1-880418-11-8

no comment, Dee? | 07 August 2015  

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