My Scientology Movie (2016)
I recently had dinner with a couple who are amongst my oldest friends and, amidst a delightful meal in good company, was shocked to be confronted with the opinion (actually phrased as a question) that Scientology might “offer something positive”. Having followed this cult for many years, I was disturbed.
A week later, iTunes is flogging the latest Louis Theroux documentary in which the man-with-an-eye for the most bizarre in human behaviour takes a look at the ‘Church’ of Scientology. Being a huge fan of their comedy (!), I coughed up the tenner and downloaded what Theroux regards as “the Holy Grail of Stories”, and iTunes touts as being “as outlandish as it is revealing”.
Directed by John Dower and produced for BBC Films by Theroux, I was looking forwards to 1 hour and 39 minutes which brought me up to date with L. Ron Hubbard’s business. It has been 2 years since I have seen much on the organisation in mainstream media. Members may be nut-cases but they are serious and successful. Scientology is worth “billions”. As the excellent book and documentaries from John Sweeney showed, and despite a number of defections of significant members, the ‘Church’ survives.
Written by Theroux and Dower, there are two central aspects to their approach: the use of actors to re-create newsworthy Scientology ‘moments’, and the presence of former Church enforcer, Mark ‘Marty’ Rathbun. Unfortunately neither provides new insight. There is the usual stalking of the team by cameras and agitated members of the Church; anonymous vehicles seen in-pursuit; and the occasional rant. All of which were shown with more drama, and in more revealing ways, by Sweeney’s original Panorama segment in 2007. In Rathbun, the film presents an unstable man who is both awkward and temperamental on camera, offering little new information beyond his shaky belief that he can “bring down” the organisation – and its allegedly violent leader, David Miscavige – at any time. The actors are keen and faithfully re-create tense situations or previously-seen footage but ultimately these pieces fall flat – significant screen time is wasted with audition segments that deliver little.
My Scientology Movie does have some informative pieces; notably Jeff Hawkins, the Church’s former copy and scriptwriter. This is the first time I have heard why people do what they do in the name of Scientology and why they are scared to dissent, complain or leave. With ironic symmetry, Hawkins’ wife remains in the Church and features in the film harassing Theroux, along with one of his auditioned actors, clearly agitated. In possibly its only poignant moment, Hawkins explains that he still loves his estranged, acolyte wife dearly. Interesting also to see that those defenders of fame, London Solicitors Carter-Ruck, number the Church of Scientology amongst their clients. The film features scenes in which the BBC receive letters from the firm converying the Church’s concerns regarding Theroux’s otherwise secret project.
Rathbun’s eccentricity puts Theroux off his game and few figurative punches are thrown. The film closes with an attempt at narrative balance, and arguably presents the Scientology cult with useful propaganda. “Holy Grail” this is not; empty and published straight-to-video. My Scientology Movie is neither outlandish, nor revealing. Check out the Panorama reports on You Tube instead.