Based on the book by Lawrence Wright and directed by Alex Gibney, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is yet another very strong addition to Gibney’s credentials as being America’s foremost documentary film-maker. With his previous work looking at the USA’s foreign policy in Taxi to the Dark Side to the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of child abuse in Mea Maxima Culpa, this look at one of the most famous and bizarre examples of contemporary religion is everything we have come to expect from Gibney and his team; a thoroughly researched, strongly argued expose that is as damning as it is fascinating.
Combining interviews with various previous church members and a heap of archival footage, the history of Scientology is covered from its beginning under L. Ron Hubbard to the present day as it currently operates under David Miscavige, with Tom Cruise as the poster boy.
L. Ron Hubbard was a science-fiction writer before he became the founder of Scientology, he actually holds the Guinness World Record for most published works. During the Depression he wrote a heap of pulp fiction novels to earn money (which incidentally, are now all considered Scientology’s sacred texts because of its official status of a ‘religion’) and served in the Navy when the war broke out. From all accounts he seems like an absolute pig of a man, who was violent towards his wives and publically stated that the best way to make money was to start a religion.
From its humble beginnings as a strange fringe group in the 1950s, Scientology is now an institution worth billions of dollars, spanning across continents and continually drawing people in with its claims of giving people superpowers by exorcising the evil alien souls that live in their internal organs (Yes. Really.). It would all be comical if it wasn’t for the fact that the Church has committed numerous human rights violations, which it still is doing and keeps getting away with, and is tax exempt because of its status as a state-recognized religious foundation.
At first Scientology seems like a unique kind of self-help, akin to The Secret or going to psychotherapy and it appears simply as a way to cope with life’s difficulties. It’s only once you’re in the church for several years and have paid it thousands upon thousands of dollars that the bizarre foundation myth gets revealed. One interviewee actually says that upon reading the holy text he thought it was like an insanity test – If you believed it then you obviously were mad and would get kicked out. It’s a credit to Gibney that the documentary doesn’t look down at the people who are willing to talk about their experience, instead it’s actually quite sad seeing how people fall victim to mind-games and blatant brainwashing. It’s even more of an achievement that the viewer actually begins to understand how people get drawn into the Church and why they stay there.
Maybe we shouldn’t pick especially on Scientology, after all, remember that part in the bible with the talking snake and giant boat with two of every animal, or that other time when a man offers his daughters to some angels for them to rape and then his wife turns into a block of salt? No? Trust me, it’s there. Remember that Hinduism has faith in an elephant God with four arms and let’s not forget that less than 1000 years ago people had full confidence that Thor, who we recently saw fighting a horde of killer robots with the Avengers, was literal truth. Every religion seems a bit bonkers to anyone who isn’t a member of it, and while it’s easy to poke fun, we should all have mutual respect and show a tolerance and decency towards those with faiths other than our own.
It’s just that Scientology reaches entirely new levels of “I’m sorry…What!?”, with its faith in the evil overlord Xenu ruling over the galactic federation and tossing aliens into the volcanoes of Hawaii with space fairing jumbo jets that then dropped atom bombs into the lava flows. Then the alien souls being brainwashed and now those souls live inside all of us and cause all our emotions and fears. It brings to mind that line from The Master (which you’ll probably want to watch again after seeing this): “He’s just making all this up as he goes along… You don’t see that?” It’s truly difficult to believe that people go along with it, let alone belief it as fact and pay the Church their life savings. It would all be funny – If it wasn’t so profoundly sad.
Gibney has constructed an unnerving, fascinating and occasionally blackly funny documentary that will make you both sad and angry at the content. Scientology should have never been allowed to grow beyond Hubbard’s inner circle, and there is something fundamentally wrong with Freedom of Religion if this blatantly fabricated cult doesn’t pay tax. This is one of the best documentaries of the year. Don’t miss it.
Going Clear – Scientology and the Prison of Belief is in Australian cinemas from 18 June through Madman Films.