Going Clear

June 20, 2015
Alex Gibney 
(dir.) 'Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief' (2015)
Alex Gibney (dir.) 'Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief' (2015)

After last week’s interview with Alex Gibney I received my obligatory email from Vicki Dunstan, President of the Australian chapter of the Church of Scientology, warning me about the filmmaker’s one-sided approach in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Gibney makes “outrageous claims”, peddles “blatant falsehoods”, and refuses to consider the documentation the Church presents in its own defence.

Ms. Dunstan would like everyone to check out the Church’s response to Gibney on freedommag.org. This is one thing she and her antagonist have in common, as Gibney is also encouraging his audience to visit that website. It’s a perfect example of the way the Church operates: a relentless attack on the director and every ex-Scientologist interviewed for the film. The attacks are personal and vitriolic. There is no trace of the balance the Scientologists find lacking in Gibney’s approach.

They accuse Gibney of being a propagandist but their response is the most shameless propaganda. The only way such apparent hypocrisy can be flaunted in public is if one has an unshakeable self-belief. The other options would be sheer stupidity, or the cynical view that most people will believe anything, but for the sake of argument I’ll stick with ‘self-belief’.

Gibney argues that the Scientology website is speaking to those who are already on-side. Because the Church leadership views itself as infallible any criticism must necessarily be unjustified. It’s a position even the Pope might hesitate to take up nowadays, but it helps simplify the complexities of life.

It also raises a crucial question for those of us who have never understood the appeal of Scientology: “Why do apparently normal, intelligent people feel the need to immerse themselves in an organisation that tells you what to think, what to believe, and how to live your life?” It’s hardly a new phenomenon, in fact it may be a basic human need. Scientology doesn’t call itself a religion solely for tax purposes, it needs the kudos and credibility of that title.

Gibney explains the hold Scientology exercises on its members by dwelling on a phrase coined by author, Lawrence Wright – “the prison of belief”. Those who get hooked on Scientology are seekers who feel dissatisfied by their relationships, their level of achievement, the superficiality of everyday life. The Church presents itself as a therapeutic experience that helps one achieve clarity. The deeper the subject goes, the higher the level reached on the recurrent personality tests, the more satisfying and addictive the process.

It is only at a comparatively late stage that one learns the Creation story about Xenu and the Thetans (it sounds like a rock band!), and by then it’s too late to have doubts. You have entered the prison of belief. The hermetic nature of the Church means that your family and friends are also likely to be members, while every contrary influence is “disconnected” from your life.

For many members the Church becomes the very bedrock of their being. Whole generations of children have grown up under its aegis, knowing no other existence.

Nevertheless it still feels hard to believe anyone would willingly submit to doctrines dreamed up by pulp science fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard, as a get-rich-quick-scheme that he eventually came to take seriously – along with his own prophetic status.

Gibney gives us all the necessary background on Scientology, including some startling footage of Hubbard wearing make-up, looking – and acting – like an aging drag queen. He takes us through the history of the movement, its tenets and methods, not to mention its epic battle with the US tax department. That struggle was finally resolved in favour of the Scientologists after it bombarded the Internal Revenue with vexatious lawsuits until it agreed to let allow the Church to be classified as a religion – and therefore tax free. Scientology is also a bona fide religion in Australia, but not in a country such as Germany, where it is viewed as a cult.

The strength of this documentary is that it doesn’t dwell too long on the mumbo jumbo of Scientology. Gibney interviews eight people, long-term members of the Church, who give harrowing accounts of their experiences. Some of these, such as Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder, were high officials who obviously enjoyed the power and prestige associated with their jobs. They may be repentant now, but for decades they acted as True Believers. Were they simply opportunists? Gibney doesn’t judge them, he is more interested in the information they can provide.

The most damning parts of the film are the clips made by the Church itself, including an interview with celebrity Scientologist, Tom Cruise, in which the actor seems positively deranged. Even more alarming is the footage of Scientology’s El Supremo, David Miscavige, speaking to his followers from a platform that resembles a cross between the Nuremberg rallies and the Academy Awards.

Miscavige, who gives the straight arm salute beloved of all Great Leaders, has the kind of haircut last seen in a pop video by Devo – a coif so plastic it looks like a comedy prop.

The biggest problem for the Church is that Going Clear is almost hypnotically fascinating. It is like watching a great mystery story unfold. The Church can complain that it is all lies and try and to prevent followers from tuning in, but despite its billions and its army of disciples, Scientology is particularly vulnerable to the free flow of information and opinion. In the age of the Internet and social media that flow is uncontrollable. Watch the film, check out the Scientology website, and draw your own conclusions.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Written and directed by Alex Gibney
Starring Lawrence Wright, Marty Rathbun, Mike Rinder, Jason Beghe, Paul Haggis, Sylvia ‘Spanky’ Taylor, Sarah Goldberg
USA, rated M, 120 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 20th June, 2015.