Across his body of work as a documentarian, Louis Theroux has covered a vast array of topics, groups and points of view, but there have been two simple constants: first, his chosen method, to enter groups, families and organisations to get to know the people involved on a personal level; second, his utterly unshakeable politeness. When he came face to face with the Church of Scientology, however, the former proved utterly impossible, and the latter was brought as close to breaking point as it has been yet.
A documentary of the controversial religion/cult/corporation has been a passion project of Theroux’s for some time, but consistent refusals of his interview requests almost scuppered the project. A different approach was required: if he couldn’t go to Scientology, he’d make Scientology come to him.
So it is that Theroux sets about the baffling project of attempting to recreate accounts of abuse within the religion, hiring actors to play Scientology leader David Miscavige and notorious member Tom Cruise, turning to prominent exiles from the church to advise – all in the hopes of baiting the church to respond.
At first the unusual structure seems a far cry from Theroux’s previous work, but similarities creep in once his plan yields fruit: as the shoot progresses, private detectives begin tailing the film crew, angry letters from law firms arrive, and silent Scientologists appear wielding cameras of their own to film the film crew back, allegedly one of the organisation’s preferred intimidation tactics.
This results in sequences as ludicrous as they are insightful, each side exercising their right to film the other, implacable cameramen staring down the barrels of their lenses in silent confrontation. Every current member caught on camera resists questioning, returning only silence or demands that the film crew leave. This consistent rejection of debate or discussion is enough to see the normally unflappable Theroux become visibly frustrated, showing the first signs of pushing back – though never quite losing control.
Former members prove more amenable, and undeniably complex. Rathbun is the focus, and in his former position near the top of the church’s hierarchy was responsible for many of the crimes he now accuses the church of. He’s a friendly enough figure initially, and heavily critical of Scientology’s sins, but the film questions what kind of man could be complicit in such crimes for decades, and how many more skeletons might be hidden in his closet.
Witty, incisive and with a visual flair far beyond any Theroux has shown before, My Scientology Movie finds the documentarian on rare form, a light touch and novel methods yielding what may well be a career-best.
Words by Dominic Preston
My Scientology Movie screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2015.