Movie Review: ‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief’
Director: Alex Gibney
Plot: An examination into the operations of the ‘Church of Scientology’, a powerful global organisation in the modern age.
Review: I live in Perth, Australia. We are one of the most isolated cities in the world. On the left we have a wide ocean, on the right a vast desert. All our deliveries take longer, many nation wide tours skip past us and we lack many major franchises. We don’t have Starbucks. Not one.
But we have a Church of Scientology.
I used to pass by then every day, a single door with a big sign. Often they would have a small table set up on the sidewalk with a pile of books for sale, and one of those goofy looking E-Meter things. The person behind the desk would bear a resemblance to the lone nutjobs standing in the town square holding signs demanding ‘9/11 Truth Now’ or ‘Equal Rights For Men’. Walk past and don’t make eye contact.
The point I’m making is that this isn’t an isolated group of fringe believers, and they’re not isolated to California or even the United States. They number in the millions and their income is substantially more.
But what’s the problem? People can believe what they want so long as no-one gets hurt. What they believe is certainly pretty barmy, even by the standards of most mythologies, and we all had a little chuckle at it on South Park.
The problem is that people are getting hurt, both physically and psychologically. Articles and features have explored this in the past but never before has a film maker gone so in depth, or pointed such a bright light on the operations of the organisation. There are many startling sights in this documentary – the scope of their organisation, the way they control people and the way they draw in new people.
Scientology has always had a thick wallet, especially since they somehow managed to achieve tax exempt sessions. The ridiculous level of wealth on show is unbelievable. Plenty of footage from Scientologist ceremonies and events is used and they’re on par with the lavish Oscar presentations, but with more unsettling iconography. One commentator likens it to a Nazi ceremony and it doesn’t sound far off. The leadership seem keen on outfitting themselves with fancy uniforms and suits, giving themselves medals and standing at gold and marble podiums. There’s plenty of greed and ego on show.
This is pretty minor compared to the more insidious aspects of the organisation. Everyone knows Tom Cruise has been heavily involved with the cult and it’s been a heavy influence in their life. We’ve seen videos of him talking about how great being a Scientologist is and sounding nuts…it’s something entirely different to have a former Church leader say straight to the camera that his job was to turn Cruise against Nicole Kidman. The entire sequence about the way the Church manages Cruise’s personal life is more eye opening than you’d expect, especially the details of a Church member who is groomed to be his girlfriend.
For the little worker bees of the group it’s another story altogether. Why the group hasn’t been taken to task for their revolting labor practises is a great folly. Members of Sea Org, the Church’s primary labor force, being paid less than .50c an hour for hard labor. Members who are taken to the ‘rehab’ for peoples who seem to be trying to leave the organisation are worked 30 hours on, 3 hours off and fed table scraps. Even those who do leave face a life of harassment and abuse, especially if they try to speak out.
What brings this documentary to the fore of the media surrounding this cult is the level of characters who are providing these accounts. Founding members of Scientology, top level leaders and well known figures including Oscar winning director and writer Paul Haggis. These are people who have benefitted greatly from their involvement in the past, and have given up large proportions of their lives to promoting it. Never before has there been an insight into the operations of the cult before. Having key members of the Church’s inner circle sit before you and say that they lied on behalf of the church is an important blow against their system.
As a film this is a very effective documentary. Director Gibney has taken the Errol Morris route of keeping himself off screen and letting the material speak for itself. This is an attack piece, not intended to show two sides of the story, but given the Church’s tendency to lie and train their workers to lie a straight up, factual one sided approach is the best way to go about this. Simple graphics help lay out the story, easily identifying key figures and explaining Scientology jargon. It’s well paced and highly engrossing.
With the strength and resources behind Scientology, and their notoriously litigious nature, it’s not going to be a single documentary that topples them. But everyone should take the time to watch it, because becoming well informed is an important weapon against their spread into future generations. If you’ve watched Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief then you’re less likely to before a future member.