'My Scientology Movie'
For more than two decades now, Louis Theroux has been one of the most intriguing documentarians of America even though his movies rarely screen in the country. The remarkably empathetic and ever-curious Brit was the perfect guy to make a film about Scientology even though no one in the church would ever possibly consider talking to him. Fortunately, Theroux had an idea about how to make a Scientology documentary that was so crazy it had to work.
Primarily working for the BBC, Theroux has spent years studying strange subcultures, industries and institutions in the United States, ranging from the Westboro Baptist Church (whom he helped discover, for better or worse) to porn sets, prisons and dogcatchers. He tends to spend a week or two living with his subjects, slowing getting to know them and breaking down barriers until they reveal themselves honestly through casual conversation. He has an uncanny ability to make people forget they’re being filmed, and he also genuinely attempts to understand and empathize with his subjects regardless of how extreme their views or lifestyles might be.
Theroux has been fascinated by Scientology for quite some time as the film begins, running down a greatest hits of all the wacky facts that we know about how the church works. While it would have been ideal for Theroux to spend a week living in the Celebrity Center in Los Angeles, wandering around and talking to all the strange and fascinating people who live there, that was never going to happen. The Church of Scientology tends to treat outsiders with hostility and never reveals its secrets without years of dedication and tens of thousands of dollars spent.
Theroux partnered up with former Scientologist Marty Rathbun, who was once one of the highest-ranking members of the church. Rathbun claims that he was abused, harassed and even stalked after he left. He was one of the key insiders who provided information for both the book and film ‘Going Clear’. Since that doc already exists, a mere interview with Rathbun wouldn’t make for a particularly compelling film. Instead, Theroux not only has him tell stories about his time with the church, but they recreate abusive outbursts from leader David Miscavige, many of the church’s bizarre rituals, and even that notorious video with Tom Cruise. The recreations starring local actors are bizarre and Rathbun’s response to them varies from almost unsettling joy to unexpected bursts of anger. However, they aren’t the entire subject of the movie.
Scientology’s tendrils run deep in Los Angeles and it’s nearly impossible to make a movie on the subject without the church making life hell for the filmmakers. Rather slyly, that was the focus of Theroux’s exploration of the church/cult. He and director John Dower knew that arranging casting calls and driving Marty Rathbun around Scientology landmarks would anger the church and cause a response. In a way, the documentary is all a ruse to discover what it’s like to be pursued by Scientologists. Screaming church members show up on deserted roads and demand that Theroux stop filming, even though he has a permit. Every time Theroux books a studio to shoot a recreation, Scientologists turn up unannounced with cameras, and refuse to engage in any sort of conversation with him. Whenever Rathbun is spotted by the Church on his own, agents are sent out to make disturbing personal threats involving private information. It’s bizarre, creepy, and thanks to Theroux’s ever-curious attitude, often rather funny.
While Theroux is sadly unable to uncover any new facts about Scientology that weren’t explored in ‘Going Clear’ or that spectacular ‘South Park’ episode, he does provide an intriguing trip through the looking glass into the profound paranoia fostered by the church. The agents who show up to harass the crew are either overly aggressive or equally confused as to why they’re there, and there’s something unsettling about their complete refusal to engage with Theroux or even treat him like a human being.
Likewise, Theroux’s contentious relationship with Rathbun is an intriguing study in exhaustion for a man who is now a professional Scientology whistleblower doomed to be harassed endlessly by the church that was his home. He gets so testy and confused by the project that you can’t help but question the authoritative stance he’s taken in other Scientology documentaries and books. The guy clearly has an axe to grind and no one is around to present another side to his story.
For anyone obsessed with the capitalist cult masquerading as a religion, Louis Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’ is a must-watch. As a study of the reactionary nature of the Church of Scientology and its creepy surveillance methods, the doc is both a hilarious black comedy and a quiet nightmare. You may end up with more questions about Scientology than you had when you started the movie, but you’ll also see some of the dark side of the overprotective church up close and personal. This was one of the trickiest topics that Theroux has ever thrown himself into, and thanks to taking an unconventional approach to documenting the subject, he delivered a bizarre comedy of errors that would be impossible to believe if it weren’t so horrifyingly true.