Made around the same time as Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (to which it inevitably must be compared) but only being released stateside now, John Dower’s My Scientology Movie seems at first as if it can only be a footnote to Gibney’s behemoth. Despite its lighter tone and shorter running time, though, it reveals itself to be a necessary companion instead. Where Gibney chronicled the history and the shocking facts of Scientology and its nefarious practices, Dower and onscreen investigator/presenter Louis Theroux investigate the psychological transformation of being in and, hopefully, surviving the church.
Theroux, best known for various human interest docuseries on the BBC, teams up with Mark Rathbun, one of the highest ranking Scientologists ever to escape the church and speak out against it. Together, and along with insight from a handful of other ex-members, they seek to recreate with actors and sets some of the most notorious alleged transgressions and noteworthy moments in the church’s years under the leadership of David Miscavige.
What’s most surprising about My Scientology Movie is that it is often laugh-out-loud funny. Mostly, that’s due to Theroux’s air of genial befuddlement and his ability to maintain naïve, polite inquisitiveness even when the church’s goons are trying to strong-arm him. When one such emissary is sent to intimate him by sticking a camera in his face, Theroux asks, in the most eager yet unassuming voice possible, “Are you making a documentary as well?” In another scene in which he’s approaching the razor wire fence boundary of a Scientology property at night and massive floodlights suddenly turn on him, his only remark is that they’re actually quite helpful as it was too dark to see anything before.
It’s fitting this should all feel like a bit of a romp because, as the title insists, it’s meant to appear to be a movie and nothing so stern as a film or a documentary. There’s a highly purposeful sheen of artificiality to the construction here; the footage Dower employs of actual Scientology rallies, for instance, is conspicuously low-res. The intention seems to be to depict Scientology as an especially false religion and then, through the artifice of the reenactments, to tie it to the famously superficial city of Los Angeles itself. The history of fringe, upstart spirituality and cults in the city predates Scientology, which is merely the most successful one. As Dower illustrates through an interview with a young actor who gave years and an estimated $50,000 to the church after joining in the interest of furthering his career, Los Angeles’ repeated dalliances with such sects has as much to do with careerism and social climbing as with the above average population of nutbars. It makes you wonder what might be going on in the heads of the actors cast as Miscavige and Tom Cruise. Is this role going to do them more harm than good?
Dower and Theroux’s rigmarole around casting the dramatizations is a bit of a feint, though. As with Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing–a clear influence–My Scientology Movie only really uses its fictionalizations to get those who were actually there back in that headspace. In other words, when an actor, as Miscavige, rampages through a conference room that’s really a plywood facsimile on a soundstage, abusing other actors portraying church members, it’s not for our benefit but rather for Rathbun’s. Reopening these wounds primes him for more revealing interviews.
It’s through these ingenious tactics that Dower and Theroux lead us to understand not just why a person would join the Church of Scientology but why they would remain within it despite all they’ve seen and experienced. One ex-member recounts his explanation to the FBI that even if they kicked down the gates and stormed the compounds where members are confined and abused, they wouldn’t be able to get one person to say they were unhappy with their conditions and treatment. Another escapee compares it to the same manner of fanaticism that leads people to strap bombs to themselves or fly airplanes into buildings. Yet another man explains that the alternate to complete submission is akin to “dying over and over again in ignorance and darkness.” My Scientology Movie adroitly uses comedy to make us understand that Scientology is no laughing matter.