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Louis Theroux, a true British national treasure, adopts a unique method in his first feature film to document the relatively unknown world of the Church of Scientology.
Like most people, my knowledge of Scientology before watching this documentary extended as far as knowing that Tom Cruise was the “poster boy” for this so called religion. I didn’t know quite how widespread it was across the United States and how much of a cult following it seems to have. It’s particularly prominent in the LA are and very popular within the actor and celebrity culture. The film showed the lengths its followers will go to keep the church’s methods under wraps or how quickly they can turn an ex follower into an outcast, which was quite shocking to see. This is a great piece of work by Louis Theroux but it’s not his best work. Mainly because he was granted no access whatsoever to the main Scientology leaders, most notably David Miscavige. The notorious leader has been at the head of the church for the past 30 years.
With almost 100% restricted access, Theroux managed to improvise his way around the Scientology subject by interviewing ex members such as Tom De Vocht, Jefferson Hawkins and Marc Headley. He also spent many intriguing hours with Marty Rathburn, the former inspector general of the church, described by some former members as the “enforcer”. I’ll be honest, for how interesting and eye-opening this documentary was, I still don’t think I could tell you with any confidence what the meaning behind Scientology actually is. I did a little research though and the word Scientology, defined by creator L. Ron Hubbard, means “study of knowingness”. Many religions claim to hold the key to salvation and Scientology is no different. It’s members are of the belief that every human is a spiritual being and that you have lived before and you’ll live again. Also, that your capabilities are infinite and not fully realised. This all derives from the 1950 teachings of Hubbard about a mental health method he calls “Dianetics”. To learn all about this “dianetics” members are encouraged to purchase all of the learning material. Often racking up bills in the hundreds of thousands over the years. In addition, if you become a member of the “SEA Organisation” you are mandated to sign a billion year contract that will supposedly last you for many lifetimes. Now, of course this is all incredibly sceptical and sounds like possibly the most profitable pyramid scheme there is!?
The secrecy behind the organisation was again highlighted when on the odd occasion, an active member was questioned by Theroux, they very quickly became extremely defensive almost to the extent of aggressiveness. It was clear early on in the movie that this “religion” created by American science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard has a very cult like status amongst its members. Almost to the extent of brainwashing, one could argue.
Interestingly, half way through the making of this documentary, high level members of the Church actually began making their own documentary based on Louis Theroux’s documentation of them! All very strange indeed. This is apparently a familiar Scientology tactic, suppressing anybody that opposes them. As the Church gets wind of what Theroux is up to, things start to get even stranger and as mentioned, start sending people round with movie cameras for counter-doc harassment.
Theroux spends quite a bit of time with Rathburn, a man now hated by the Church for his “betrayal” and uses him (and actors) to recreate some of the training methods used by the Church as well as some behind the scenes incidents involving leader David Miscavige. This led to a memorable scene with actor Aaron Perez as Miscavige, reinacting an incident within the “colony” whilst Marty Rathburn watched on. He seemed very impressed with the actors performance and even admitted it was pretty close to the real thing.
There were some particularly funny moments as well, Theroux often using his trademark deadpan technique which created some amusing encounters with a few absurdly angry Church members. There were some gloriously surreal moments too. In their first meeting, when Theroux is interviewing Rathburn in a hotel room opposite the pool, a woman in a bikini suddenly bursts her way into the room, demands they stop filming, but before she leaves, announces the fact that she is an actress. Turns out she is an actress by the name of Paz De La Huerta, who has starred in a number of films as well as the TV show Boardwalk Empire. She then just disappears from the film. Louis looks at the camera bemused. Incredibly strange but captivating stuff.
Theroux also sheds more valuable light on how important LA and the movie industry are to the Scientologists. It is a cult that depends on the desperation of those who have come to “Tinseltown” to chase their dreams, it is a belief system that preys on an individuals fantasy. It’s a fantasy that will cost you as well, sometimes family as well as money. Watch this documentary and you will be fully entertained and engaged from the start, though you may leave with a lot more questions than answers about Scientology.