Louis Theroux accomplishes the seemingly impossible in his latest piece My Scientology Movie, managing to bring humour, exposure and insight into one of the world’s most infamous and elusive cults. His mode of exploration is unique in its meta style, as it is only through constructing an artificial, parallel film to Scientology, that new angles are opened up on a group that is characteristically so fiercely closed.
His technique succeeds on multiple levels: on the superficial, in how the audience watches the allegations made against Scientology, such as those of leader David Miscavige’s violent disposition, played out in realistic and sometimes frightening detail. Where the approach really triumphs is in all that it has to reveal beneath the surface, where characters function as projections used to elicit reactions from others. A particularly poignant moment is in Andrew Perez’ re-enactment of Miscavige’s tirade in a room dubbed ‘The Hole’, an unofficial detention centre for its most senior members. Despite all the commotion, of chairs knocked over and people threatened, the camera chooses to focus on Mark Rathbun, an ex-member and lead whistle blower of Scientology. Zooming in on his reaction the audience can detect a look of awe and fear, at the authenticity of the exercise, but even more telling is his lingering note of exhilaration.
It also seems appropriate that Scientology be viewed under this lens of wealth and glamour, due to the religion’s Hollywood-centric nature, with its large membership base of actors and celebrities and headquarters in the hills of California. This undeniably influences the tone of movie and it has a distinct blockbuster spin, its advanced graphics and production far surpassing the times of Theroux’s BBC and Channel 4 budgets. Fortunately however, Theroux remains true to his trademark interviewing style, of the stiff upper lipped and ever so slightly awkward English man amongst the unhinged fanatics. Sometimes it can feel like Theroux practices objectivity in his subject matter to the point of normalisation, for example in his previous interviews with paedophiles and militant Christians, where we are perhaps desensitised to the issues at heart. However, in My Scientology Movie Theroux’s passive approach leaves the Scientologist’s to do the talking, and there is little choice but to feel unease in the face of their acts of squirreling and intimidation.
For all that is illuminated however, there is as much shrouded; and the audience may find they leave cinemas feeling unsatisfied, their intrigue piqued but not totally quenched. The ending may come as abrupt, with the feeling that the film’s final destination is never quite arrived at. A recurring scene in the movie, of Theroux’s ill-fated visits to Scientology’s headquarters, perhaps serves as a perfect analogy for the film. Like Theroux who attempts to approach the building but only ever gets as close as the outside road, we never quite penetrate the heart of the Scientology issue, and are instead left with only a fleeting glimpse in.
In his defence, Theroux does well considering his circumstances, where barbed wire and flood lights, stringent lawsuits and alleged intimidation techniques have seen many before fail in dialogue with Scientology. But as with all of his work Theroux’s documentary will be popular due to its appeal to a very human paradox; in that we are consistently intrigued by what repulses us.
Image: Anonymous9000; Flickr