There’s a point during My Scientology Movie, the latest documentary movie helmed by Louis Theroux, when ex-Scientologist and current outspoken critic of the Church Marty Rathbun blows up at the reporter. His questions are repetitious and bland, says Rathbun. Why doesn’t Theroux ask him something, anything of interest? After all, he was close to the head of a secretive global organisation that operates with almost no oversight and has been called a cult for most of its existence. Theroux thinks for a moment, and comes up with something: What was it like to punch a guy?
That moment, like many others this picture, is a disappointment. Director John Dower and Theroux, taking inspiration from 2012’s masterful The Act of Killing, have chosen to couch their narrative in the format of casting, rehearsing and finally performing scenes from Scientology’s past as recounted by Rathbun. Partly, this is a reaction to the Church’s secrecy—Theroux could gain no access nor secure interviews with any insiders, and so is forced both literally and figuratively into looking in from the outside. However, it’s also a symptom of one of the film’s major failings, a singular focus on the psychology of and accusations of crimes by Scientology leader David Miscavige.
About halfway through the movie’s 100 minute runtime, the reason for these odd structural choices becomes clear—Theroux is attempting to recreate the scenes of violence and psychological degradation reported by critics of the Church. That strategy extends beyond having actors recite dialogue, but into placing the film’s main ex-Scientology source Rathbun into the scene, conducting the mayhem. It’s clear that the team want to trigger some of the buried experience within the man, and perhaps get closer to a truthful reflection of what it would take to be Scientology’s main enforcer for decades.
Whether they achieve that aim is questionable – it’s obvious that Rathbun at least is a deeply scarred and volatile individual, but actual insights into the practices of the Church are passing and momentary at best. I would question whether the best avenue to understanding the Church is to focus on the personalities of individuals, rather than what might drive thousands into their arms in the first place. It’s like looking at the phenomenon of Donald Trump, and wondering whether he’s nice to his hair stylist—it might be interesting, but it singularly fails to tell us why he’s within striking distance of the US presidency.
The real killer blow to Theroux’s effort is the fact that Alex Gibney’s wonderful Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief came out only last year. Presenting not only the majority of the actual testimony that My Scientology Movie covers, but a great deal more to boot, Gibney’s film is far more convincing as a documentary. In short, while Theroux can often seem more interested in the moment-to-moment mental state of his own interviewees, Gibney is far more committed to reporting their stories, and what that might say about their experiences within the Church.
If anything rescues the film from its self-imposed cul de sac of imputing actions and motivations to a man who won’t talk to them, it’s the actions of Scientology’s representatives themselves. From confronting Theroux on night-time streets and warning him away from deserted lots in strident terms, to sending film crews to monitor their every move and promising to produce a counter-documentary to dig up dirt on the major players, it’s a vast overreaction to the slightest threat that lends credence to the accusations of Rathbun and the others. Without that predictable storm of protest, intimidation and legal threats, it’s hard to see how Theroux and Dower could have put together a film at all.
My Scientology Movie has a limited run at UK cinemas; we caught it at the excellent Cameo cinema in Edinburgh.