BBC documentary journalist Louis Theorux and controversial church alumnus Mark “Marty” Rathbun team up in My Scientology Movie to document the troubles of taking one of the most secretive and influential churches in the world to the big screen.
The Church of Scientology is no stranger to mass-media coverage, appearing in an episode of South Park, a recent HBO documentary, and countless news and current affairs segments. The church, which owns several million dollars of global real estate and boasts members such as Tom Cruise and Kirstie Alley, has received wide public criticism for its controversially aggressive, intrusive attacks on ex-members, and public or private figures that criticise the church’s beliefs.
The religion of Scientology is based heavily on a text called Dianetics written by founder L. Ron Hubbard (previously a science fiction writer) and orients around human beings, their undying souls, and the extra-terrestrial. Scientology also incorporates a hierarchy which requires its members to pay a substantial amount of money for each subsequent level of membership within the secretive and increasingly cult-like church.
With the tone of Scientology in mind, the mild-mannered and inquisitive line of questioning that accompanies Louis Theroux and his tenacious BBC documentaries (which have followed other dicey topics such as Neo-Nazis, doomsday preppers, drug addicts, the criminally insane, the Westboro Baptist Church, porn stars, and paedophiles) easily has any fan of Theroux’s previous work interested; the extreme beliefs that share their creed in willful ignorance and indoctrination highlighted in some of Theroux’s previous work align well with the beliefs of The Church of Scientology.
My Scientology Movie, as the name implies, focuses less on the extreme depth and intricacies of the church that similar offerings on the topic focus on, such as HBO’s Going Clear, and rather attempts to emphasise the difficulties associated with producing a film about an organisation like Scientology, the counter-surveillance and psychological implications for those who have left the church, and the willful idiosyncratic delusions that lead people both to and from the church. The premise of My Scientology Movie is unique, but valid — where it goes wrong is in its execution.
The detached yet simultaneously involved angle of the film is emphasised through the use of paid actors to depict scenes Theroux couldn’t otherwise land an interviewee to talk about on camera. Theroux demonstrates the audition process with ex-Scientology second-in-command Marty Rathbun closely overseeing and giving feedback where possible.
The literal depiction of the casting process of the paid actors is a clever distraction from what ultimately culminates as an otherwise meatless body of the film; throughout My Scientology Movie, the viewer shares a sort of third-person perspective of the camera while watching would-be David Miscaviges (the current leader of the church, who took over following L. Ron Hubbard’s death) get increasingly chaotic in their interactions, in an attempt to mirror Rathbun’s perception of the time he spent as a self-described “enforcer” for the church.
As things progress, and the apparent inclusion of only two ex-members of the church (both of whom left over ten years ago) begin to undermine the validity of the film’s basis for its “movie within a movie” premise, the viewer’s suspicions are acknowledged, in a seemingly last-ditch attempt to justify and validate Rathbun’s excessive screen-time and input throughout the casting process — it becomes clear to both the viewer and Theroux that for someone to be in such an authoritive position within the church, despite Scientology’s rejection of any such position, Rathbun himself must have been quite deluded and depraved to get himself there.
Unfortunately, twisting the camera and line-of-questioning back on to Rathbun falls unusually flat for Theroux — an emotional outburst from Rathbun ends the more confronting questions, and screen-time filled with silent nods is used to emphasise and elongate reactions in replacement of hard questioning.
My Scientology Movie attempts to be both a Louis Theroux BBC 2 documentary special on social extremes, and a movie about making a movie on Scientology, but falls somewhere in between. The extended, personal relationship both the viewer and Theroux develop with Rathbun is enlightening in comparison to two hours of depersonalised “talking heads” typical in most feature length documentaries; seeing Theroux’s repeated questioning over the period of a few weeks as the relationships develop is engrossing to watch, and worth its weight as a Theroux BBC film. It is, however, unfortunate to see that scenes in the film that audiences will be most engaged by are Theroux’s shit-stirring gags contained in the trailer.
The dogmatic virtues of the church and its sale to the public as a means to distract from the inherent voids of the human condition as a “get enlightenment quick” scheme are mentioned, but the driving-forces behind the church’s exploitation of the societally disenfranchised, aggressive treatment of current and ex-members, and cultural brainwashing (or role as a legitimate religion) are never truly addressed beyond the lived-out fantasies of one jaded ex-member.
My Scientology Movie is a film for Theroux fans who crave a solid look at the motivations behind someone who may get extensively involved in Scientology but needs to be viewed in conjunction with other films on the matter to get a complete, clear picture.
Words by Paul Maland