SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Recently, the first result for a Google search of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Alex Gibney’s methodical, livid new documentary, was for freedommag.org, a Scientology site with an entire wing built to rebut and undermine the film’s claims. That kind of placement is the privilege of those willing to pay, as the church of Scientology paid for a similar ad in the New York Times in mid-January, as Going Clear was poised for its Sundance premiere. That combination of scorpion-like PR and offensive reflexes and vast financial resources, the documentary makes blazingly clear, are what have kept the church that L. Ron Hubbard built safe from scrutiny for over 50 years.
The first major breach to that safety came in 2013, with the publication of Lawrence Wright’s investigative book of the same name. Wright and Gibney collaborated on the documentary, which presents and expands on Wright’s reporting. Many of the people Wright interviewed for the book, including filmmaker Paul Haggis and several key members of the Scientology organisation, appear on camera to tell their story; what you notice early on is the uniform whiteness of everyone involved. Going Clear doesn’t get into the racial politics of this particular body, but the idea of a church based in talk therapy, canny real estate investment, sci-fi fantasy, and the willingness of frightened white people to accept abuse, as well as a nutty story about how the world and human psychology actually work, speaks loudly to the era of post-war, civil rights-revolution America from which it arose.
"Going Clear delivers on its promise to make your eyes pop, and then some"
The white man at the centre of it all is Hubbard, born in Nebraska in 1911, and who died at age 74 in 1986. Gibney presents Hubbard as a fabulist and huckster, as well as a deeply disturbed man. A college dropout and writer of dime novels, in the wake of a disastrous military career through World War II, Hubbard sought counselling for his mental issues. Having not received it, Hubbard began developing his own theory of psychology, called Dianetics, by which the unconscious might be ‘cleared’ of unwanted debris through the process of ‘auditing,’ or submitting to therapeutic interviews. A lucrative craze for Dianetics came and went, after which Hubbard settled on a new theory, one with a spiritual rather than a psychological basis, and much greater economic potential.
The stories presented in Going Clear, about Hubbard and his successor, David Miscavige, are outrageous. “When he got absolute control,” a former Scientology honcho says of the latter’s ascent to the top of the church, “he went absolutely bonkers.” Hubbard’s first wife called him “a paranoid, terrifying person,” who abused her and once kidnapped their child. Under Miscavige, the church’s fondness for turning believers into slave laborers intensified; concentration camp-like destinations were created for those who displeased church leadership. The story of how Scientology became a federally recognised, tax-exempt religious organisation is a scandal, ultimately because its ugly work was so simply done. The story of how celebrities like John Travolta and Tom Cruise became the public face of the church brings shame on both men.
Which is to say that Going Clear delivers on its promise to make your eyes pop, and then some. Sociopathy, megalomania, snake oil, cult of personality, rude capitalism, imperial rule, celebrity worship, mad money, Third Reich imagery—it’s all here. Where Going Clear is less successful is in addressing its subtitle: ‘Scientology and the prison of belief.’ Despite the testimonials of numerous individuals who fell in and then, at great length, fell out with the church, the blank spot at the centre of a film designed to lay its subject bare involves not the prison but the phenomenon of belief. Gibney is careful to explain the attraction of a church whose initial pitch is that of a self-help tool, but once former members are recalling their fourth (apparently voluntary) month in what amounts to a prison camp, or tapping Nicole Kidman’s phone, with the intention of ending her marriage and estranging her from her kids, a little more explanation, and accountability, is in order.
Several members describe the ‘WTF’ moment that finally caused them, often after many years, to break with an organisation that today finds itself richer in funds than it is in believers. I found the comment of one member, on how he got into the church, more salient: Rather than anything specific to Scientology, he says, boredom and restlessness brought him to a point where a scheme with lots of paperwork, systems, jargon, and task-work was just the thing to fill up his life—with occupation, if not with meaning. He got into it because he felt like being into something. No mystery, no magic, no cult trickery; just another willing, empty vessel.
Watch: 'Scientology: Going Clear'
SBS Viceland, 8.30pm Sunday 1 March 2020
SBS On Demand after broadcast
Director: Alex Gibney
Starring: Alex Gibney, Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe
What's it about?
Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney turns his gaze to Scientology in /Going Clear,/ based on the book of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright. Gibney profiles eight former members of the Church of Scientology, whose most prominent adherents include A-list Hollywood celebrities, shining a light on how the church cultivates true believers, including their experiences and what they are willing to do in the name of religion. The film covers a broad range of material from the church's origins—punctuated by an intimate portrait of founder L. Ron Hubbard—to present-day practices and alleged abuses as reported in the media.