Louis Theroux: My Scientology Movie

'My friend Joe is back with another blog post this week. Enjoy'

Even before seeing Louis Theroux’s new film, My Scientology Movie, most audience members, myself included, will have walked in with many negative preconceptions about the pseudo-religion. This issue is immediately and directly tackled in the opening of the film. The first text seen on screen is Louis’ tweet, dated 10th February 2014, “Open call to any #scientologists out there. I would love to speak to you for a documentary I am working on. About scientology.” This is met by warnings from his twitter followers not to head down this particular path, largely due to scientology’s reputation for devastating personal attacks against anyone who dares criticise it. Clearly undeterred by the prospect of having his chequered past uncovered (not that Theroux seems like a person with too many skeletons in the closet), the next problem My Scientology Movie faces is the fact that no scientologists want to talk to the BBC. Despite Louis’ amicable request for interviewees, the secretive nature of scientology appears to mean that his usual trick of using his disarming personality to slowly win over the trust of his subjects (one that has served him very well over his career) is all but useless. Using meticulously cast recreations of events reported to have taken place in scientology’s inner circles and interviews with former (largely embittered) scientologists, Louis aims to give insight into a world which, as shown in b-roll from the filming of the movie, is actively trying to shut him out. In this respect Louis Theroux partially succeeds, creating an involving and interesting documentary, however, due to the unavoidable one sided nature of the interview process, the end product feels somewhat lacking.

Anyone who’s seen Theroux’s previous work should be familiar with his formula. Theroux enters the circles of a particular group (generally one on the fringes of normal society) and, through persistent and honest questioning, gradually breaks down the motivations behind its members. What becomes clear early on is that this is not going to work with the scientologists. The only people willing to lend their voices to the film are people who, despite once being part of scientology’s elite, have since left. Unfortunately for these people breaking away from scientology rarely happens smoothly meaning that most bring a lot of bitterness and resentment for the religion and its leaders along with them. One such interviewee is Marty Rathburn, a man who previously held a reputation as scientology’s fixer, using violence and cohesion to keep the ranks of scientology in check. Another is Marc Headly, who used to produce promotional movies advertising scientology to the masses.
Jefferson Hawkins, the author of ‘Counterfeit Dreams’, a damning expose of scientology from a former member, is also present. All of these men provide unparalleled insight into scientology, however it is difficult to distinguish their genuine opinions from those fuelled by years of being hounded and harassed by members of their former religion. What My Scientology Movie lacks in a balance of viewpoints, it attempts to make up for by casting actors to play some of scientology’s biggest names and thus give us an objective recreation of key events. Whilst this process, and its eventual results, are undeniably interesting, they have an unavoidably hollow feeling. They are, by their very nature, an imitation of what we as an audience are genuinely eager to see. My Scientology Movie spends a great deal of time discussing and examining scientology’s current leader, David Miscavige, to the extent to which he feels like a dark presence permeating the film, though his complete absence (other than a handful of archive clips) make him feel like something of a bogeyman. Despite the painstaking process Louis goes through casting Miscavige for his recreations, we never really get a sense of the man who’s at the core of everything being discussed in the film. Though the silence from scientology’s corner isn’t the fault of Theroux or anyone involved in the making of My Scientology Movie, it leaves the movie feeling unfinished and holds it back from providing the deeper level of insight that Theroux has so reliably delivered in the past.

Despite its shortcomings as a documentary, My Scientology Movie is consistently entertaining. Director John Dower finds plenty of humour in the proceedings as enraged scientologists confront Louis, demand he leave property they have no right to kick him off of and as, during an audition attempting to find someone who can channel Miscavige’s notorious temper, Louis is repeatedly slammed up against a wall and screamed at. The films sharp editing accentuates the already whacky world of scientology brilliantly meaning there is rarely a dull moment. Theroux’s trademark calmness and naivety work brilliantly to comic effect as he goes endless rounds attempting to rationally argue his side to Miscavige’s devotees as they in turn attempt to cut him off at every turn.

My Scientology Movie can’t really be blamed for its flaws, as is made abundantly clear during the film, the world of scientology is as uncooperative as it is fascinating. Unfortunately, it seems like Theroux has bitten off more than he can chew with the world’s largest cult, however he still manages to deliver a final product that entertains throughout. 


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