by Ken Bakely
Why do Scientologists recruit young, aspiring actors and artists? Perhaps it is because the impressionable, and those who desire some kind of fulfillment, are more likely to buy into new, off-kilter beliefs if they claim to radically alter their life. Maybe they think that they will be effective proselytizers. This is one of the first questions that one comes away with while watching John Dower’s My Scientology Movie, which follows British journalist Louis Theroux as he assembles dramatizations of key points in Scientology’s history, while also attempting to investigate the notorious cult. It’s pointed out that the organization, based out of Los Angeles, has dedicated considerable efforts to convert such people to its cause. There are many questions posed, often inferred from throwaway references in throwaway scenes. The problem with the film is that it never really answers them, instead coming off as a mishandled, misedited beginner’s guide to the organization, never doing anything that Alex Gibney’s Going Clear didn’t do better.
Those two movies were produced around the same time, independent of each other, and the superiority of the Gibney film only serves to highlight the flaws of the Dower production. My Scientology Movie revolves heavily around the casting and filming of the dramatic scenes, featuring actors portraying David Miscavige and Tom Cruise, as well as a handful of other high-ups in the organization. Between this, Theroux conducts a number of interviews with Mark Rathburn, a former Scientology executive who has become one of its most prominent critics.
While the hope is that he’ll be able to use his wide field of knowledge to shed some light on the many secrets of the group, Rathburn has been obsessively surveilled by his ex-fellows, often unable to go an entire day in Los Angeles without being confronted and harassed, or silently followed. As a result of this, the crew is unable to record even as much as a quick exterior shot. Each trip to a locked-down, desert compound or hillside administrative complex is met by a gaggle of enforcers who immediately turn them away, already tipped off by their investigations of Rathburn’s whereabouts.
Such moments deliver unintentional comedy, as Dower’s crew and the Scientology officials engage in a bizarre, twenty-first century Mexican standoff, with the documentarian’s cameras and the Scientologists’ cameras pointed at each other, both refusing to back down and take the discussion off the record. Theroux, eternally recorded by all sides in this conversation, will insist that they have a right to film there. A Scientologist will make the counterclaim that their organization owns the facility and the surrounding land, and their very presence is a kind of trespassing. Theroux will dispute this. The Scientologist will dispute the dispute. On and on until the scene cuts. It’s funny in its rhythmic quality. There are a lot of entertaining sequences in My Scientology Movie (especially the completed re-enactments), but they never tell us anything of value. The film turns out to be more about the difficulties of making a documentary about a paranoid, well-resourced, tax-exempt cult than an attempt to bring about any revelations made about said cult. Scientology has a lot to hide. We know that. What’s the point?
It turns into a mediocre affair, alternately repetitive and unconstructive. There are never any irredeemably bad mishaps made, but My Scientology Movie can’t survive on anything other than the notion that there should be serious attempts to infiltrate Scientology’s dangerous practices and processes. There have been a number of good documentaries lately which have made similar attempts, or have at least been able to present a unified vision. Dower and Theroux are obviously fascinated with the group, but it’s clear that they never do. It’s like a 99 minute proof-of-concept, an audition for a more professional and thorough project to come. Yet this is it. As a light, vaguely eccentric primer to the deep insanities of Scientology, it works just fine, but when Theroux makes a series of brazen claims at the start of the film, of how he believes he’ll go further than anyone else in investigating the organization, it’s all the more disappointing that he never really tries.