EXPECTATIONS: Something very funny, slightly scary and a little bit profound.
REVIEW: Now I admit I do not really watch a lot of documentaries, but in recent years, I have gotten myself into a good groove when I discovered the work of documentary filmmaker, Louis Theroux. The first documentary I saw of his was The Most Hated Family in America, which was about people in the Westboro Baptist Church. Amiably low-key, polite to the point of hilarity and compellingly insightful, Theroux got me interested to watch his other works which researched many subjects like drugs, sports, religion and even porn.
And all of them were highly entertaining, thought-provoking and amusing pieces of work. So when I heard that Theroux’s next subject for a new documentary was Scientology, a controversial self-appointed religion made famous by celebrities like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, you better believe that I was excited. So does the documentary live up to its pedigree?
After the Church of Scientology refuses to cooperate in making the titular documentary, Theroux teams up with former senior church official Mark Rathbun (who has featured in another Scientology documentary, Going Clear) to create dramatic reconstructions of incidents within the church witnessed by Rathbun and other ex-Scientologists. They focus in particular on alleged violent behaviour by the church’s leader David Miscavige at its secretive Gold Base facility in California, which Theroux tries to visit.
The church retaliates by putting Theroux and his film crew under surveillance, leading to camera-wielding confrontations with a Scientology “squirrel buster” team and with church officials outside Gold Base. Theroux raises questions about Rathbun’s own former complicity in the church’s extreme activities, leading to tensions between the two men.
In interviews, Theroux had said that he was fascinated by the approach of another documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer called The Act of Killing. The approach was to recreate situations based on true accounts with actors and My Scientology Movie does that as well. While some scenes are absolutely hilarious i.e. the induction of Scientology; some scenes can be downright shocking i.e. a specific situation where Miscavige loses his temper and takes it out on the recruits.
The laughs and the tension still continue throughout the film with the constant surveillance from Scientology following the crew. The confrontations skewer towards the comedic, especially when the squirrel buster team denies that they are from Scientology, but how it plays out on the film, the situations also skewer towards the disturbingly surreal.
There is one scene in particular where Theroux and others are outside the Gold Base at night, and they are confronted by security, led by Catherine Fraser. The scene had a scene that was very reminiscent of David Lynch’s work that it scared me quite a bit. Another scene reminiscent of David Lynch that disturbed me a bit was the surprise appearance of actress Paz de la Huerta (famous for Boardwalk Empire and Nurse 3D) early in the film that just came out of nowhere and is never referenced again.
The laughs and surrealism is peppered throughout the film that guarantees top-notch entertainment. But when you compare My Scientology Movie to other documentaries like Going Clear, it comes up a bit short. As much effort as it puts in to provide precious information about Scientology, there’s very little here that is actually new or scintillating here that we haven’t already heard from other sources.
But for those who are interested yet know very little about the subject at hand, My Scientology Movie provides a laugh-filled surrealistic experience that suitably provides a complementary alternative to the more methodical documentary Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.
On a final note, there’s a scene where during the staged induction of Scientology, where it hilariously reminded me of a scene in The Simpsons where Homer was in the Circle of Judgment, being verbally humiliated and objectified to the point of vulnerability. You really can’t make this stuff up.
Plenty of laughs and gleeful surrealism pump up the entertainment value
Nothing new or surprising apart from what we already know
Cast: Louis Theroux, Mark “Marty” Rathbun, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter, Jeff Hawkins, Tom De Vocht, Marc Headley, Steve Mango, Catherine Fraser.
Director: John Dower
Screenwriters: Louis Theroux, John Dower