If that sounds like an entrapping question, it’s merely an introduction to the pernicious world within the Church of Scientology. As Gibney’s movie reveals, Scientology is less a religion than a racket.
The Irish-American Gibney is the most important expositional documentary maker now working and the most prolific. A quieter and more subtle mischief maker than Michael Moore, Gibney is a soft-spoken polemicist.
Where Moore kicks in doors to confront the powerful, Gibney picks the lock. His films have challenged the Catholic Church, in Mea Maxima Culpa (2012) and Wall Street, in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005).
When necessary he doesn’t shrink from challenging his own subjects, as in The Armstrong Lie (2013) and We Steal Secrets (2013), his report on WikiLeaks’ mercurial leader Julian Assange.
In 2007 Gibney produced his masterpiece, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which recounts the killing of an innocent Afghani taxi driver by US military forces. As a reconstruction of injustice it rivals Errol Morris’s classic Thin Blue Line (1988).
By exposing Scientology Gibney’s latest movie aims at a smaller target but one that still maintains
an impressive profile. Based on Lawrence Wright’s book, the full title is Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and indicates Gibney’s main concern.
The Church of Scientology, founded in 1953 by sci-fi hack L. Ron Hubbard, effectively operates by holding its adherents captive. By manipulation, coercion and deception, Scientology’s hierarchy (led by the charismatic and creepy David Miscavige) locks the faithful in psychological leg-irons.
On joining the church people are “audited” for their intimate emotions, often revealing profound private problems. But recordings are kept of these auditing sessions and used against any church member wanting to leave or question the leadership.
Dissenters are often blackmailed, face public humiliation and suffer a process called “disconnection” that separates them from their families.
Yet despite being publicly discredited, Scientology is served by that most dubious quality – celebrity credibility.
Endorsement by Hollywood figures like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Anne Archer and Juliette Lewis gives the church both glamour and media purchase. This also helps accumulate wealth.
The church has assets worth around four billion dollars. As director Paul Haggis tells Gibney, the promise is that “if you give them all your money, they will make anything possible.”
Haggis joined in the 1970s but grew disillusioned and now
speaks out against the church. In return he’s is subject to a vilification campaign, as indeed is Gibney. Attention from the movie world is welcome only when it flatters Scientology.
Going Clear doesn’t expose much that isn’t already known, or certainly suspected, about Scientology.
But as in all Gibney’s films his witnesses reveal their most candid and compelling memories. Some are distressing, even while they’re riveting. Gibney again gives disenchantment a voice. Another Oscar nomination is a certainty.