Louis Theroux: My Scientology Movie or My Scientology Mistake?
As a renowned documentary creator, Louis Theroux is known for his ability to give subjects ‘enough rope to hang themselves’. He has a skill for asking the right questions and leaving the right amount of silence that lures his subjects into speaking on difficult topics. It seems both odd and obvious, then, that he should approach The Church of Scientology – one of the most infamous cults in the world and the perfect subject for a Theroux documentary, but one notorious for its secrecy, maintained silence and complete lack of communication with the press.
In the Q&A following the live screening of the film, Theroux remarked that the creator of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, described journalists as ‘1.1 on the tone scale’, which in Scientology terms equates them with perverts. It was clear for Theroux that he was never going to be able to interview a practising Scientologist. Instead, the dialogue of the documentary is provided by ex-members of the Church, particularly the Former Inspector General named Marty Rathbun. With the help of Rathbun’s insight, Theroux uses actors to recreate scenes from within the Church of Scientology, inspired by the re-enactment technique used in The Act of Killing (2013). Theroux merges his documentary with dramatization that focuses on the violent nature of the church leader, David Miscavige, and his alleged abuse of senior management. Andrew Perez, who plays Miscavige, is undoubtedly a highlight of the documentary in his accurate portrayal of Miscavige’s unnerving, vicious and volatile nature.
David Miscavige (left), Andrew Perez (right)
Theroux provides release between these re-enactments with humorous footage of his own encounters with members of the Church. He walks the perimeters of the Celebrity Centre in Southern California and is quickly confronted by a woman who begins filming him and threatening to have him arrested for trespassing. Whilst this entertaining confrontation, and other instances of Theroux being tailed, offer us an insight into the Church’s paranoia, ultimately the documentary feels as though it does not go anywhere. It does not seem to successfully infiltrate the Church or the religion itself, and once Theroux has hired actors to play Miscavige and Tom Cruise he seems unsure of what to do with them. It may be that Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) is partly to blame for this; a film when mentioned in the live Q&A, caused Theroux and Director John Dower to shake their heads.
Gibney’s adaptation of the book ‘Going Clear’ was released in June 2015, a few months before Theroux’s documentary premiered at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival. Going Clear is more of a forensic exposé of Scientology that also adopts the technique of interviewing a handful of ex-Scientology members. The first half of the film focuses on the actual theory of the religion and how it was created by the sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard. It explains the practises of the church, the cost of Scientology and its tax evasion. The second half of the film concentrates on the controversy and scandals of the religion, including the tapping of Nicole Kidman’s phone in order to orchestrate her break up with Tom Cruise, and the horrific conditions that some of the senior management were forced to endure. Although Gibney’s documentary is not as personal as Theroux’s, and does not physically knock on the Church’s front door as Theroux does, it does a better job at revealing whatScientology is through meticulous cinematography that shows scans of documents, photos and films that Theroux then also uses.
Those who left the cinema disappointed by Theroux’s documentary were probably hoping to see something more similar to ‘Going Clear’, and it very much feels like Gibney’s documentary is the foundation that props up Theroux’s. Evidently Theroux needed to create something original and therefore different to Gibney, however without the basis of having seen ‘Going Clear’, an audience member of Theroux’s documentary would feel as if they had barely scratched the surface of Scientology. I think in an attempt to differ from ‘Going Clear’, Theroux failed to simply explain the religion itself.
Does this mean that My Scientology Movie was a mistake? Should Theroux have given up after realising ‘Going Clear’ was being made at the same time? In my opinion, no it was not a mistake but it was marketed incorrectly. The most impressive element of Theroux’s film is the insight it provides into Marty Rathbun, an ex-Scientologist who boasts of his days as ‘the baddest ass dude in Scientology’. Rathbun condemns Scientology for practises that he initiated and performed, such as the use of violence and squirrel-busting. When Theroux receives an email from the Church stating the Rathbun is simply an ‘embittered ex-member’ who did not even have a managerial role, Rathbun is offended. Later in the film, in a workshop where Theroux asks the actors to clap for L. Ron Hubbard, Rathbun then commands them not to. When they follow Theroux’s orders rather than his, Rathbun storms out protesting ‘that’s mind control…They all went and followed this new cult leader – The Louis Theroux cult.’ Theroux’s documentary reveals that Marty Rathbun has some sort of power complex, and his relationship with Scientology is a complicated one that he cannot overcome and may not want to overcome.
Louis Theroux: My Scientology Movie is not the exposé of this infamous cult/religion but it is Theroux handing Marty Rathbun the perfect amount of rope to hang himself in a truly damning way. Theroux gives us an unsettling insight into a Scientologist who had all the power in the Church and now with very little in the world outside, seems unpredictable and explosive. It is difficult to say whether he condemns the Church of reveres it, and I think Rathbun himself is still unsure. For this reason, Theroux’s documentary is definitely worth seeing, however I would recommend Going Clear before going to the cinema.