Recommended Viewing Situation:
Filming yourself watching a documentary of yourself watching the film.
Running Time: 99 minutes.
Format: 35mm Film.
Director: John Dower.
Writer: Louis Theroux
Cinematographer: Will Pugh
Probably the greatest achievement of this documentary is how it matches the strange intensity of its subject with a surrealism that pervades almost every minute. Unlike Alex Gibney’s illuminating Going Clear (2015), this is not an exposé of the murky history of Scientology, but instead, it subjects the Church to parody. Theroux’s diffident and friendly style lends a humour to scenes that would otherwise be frightening. Much of the end of the film is like an extended Ten Paces and Turn trope. Both Theroux and the Scientologists following him are caught in a videotaping stalemate; both filming each other for documentaries they state will reveal the truth about each other. My Scientology Movie (2015) is full of moments like this that stray well into farce, and as a consequence of presenting this documentary as a heavily stylised audition process, it becomes difficult to tell whether these are being manipulated behind the scenes, or if Theroux’s documentary is just ludicrous enough to be true.
It certainly begins promisingly enough, reminding its audience of Scientology’s reputation by presenting Theroux’s 2014 open call tweet for Scientologists to speak to about their religion and the response that Theroux should contact lawyers first. Theroux, however, states his aim upfront: to find a positive angle on the much-maligned Church. This idea, though laudable, gives off the same sort of vibes as someone living through a terrible drought saying, ‘well, at least it’s sunny’. However, the power of optimism to blind people to the reality of their situation is actually Theroux’s serious commentary.
After being unable to secure an interview with any practising Scientologists and acknowledging that he is unlikely to, Theroux then turns to actors to put on performances of notorious members of the Church, like David Miscavige and Tom Cruise. Cast as Miscavige, Andrew Perez does a terrifying and en pointe impression, reading transcripts of Miscavige’s only onscreen interviews with a disturbing intensity that is coached into him. The coach is Marty Rathbun, the former ‘Mr Fixit’ for the Church, who is now their public enemy number one. From Rathbun’s perspective, this is due to his unflinching portraits of daily life as a Scientologist, although the Church has tried to cast him as embittered and attempting to smear them.
Interestingly, Theroux himself seems unsure which line to take with Rathbun. He takes full advantage of what information Rathbun is willing to give, even casting himself in the role of victim of the violent anger that Rathbun drills into Perez. However, when Rathbun is verbally attacked by current Scientologists later on the documentary, Theroux reminds Rathbun that this is what he would have encouraged and even done when he was still a member of the Church. This goes on to create a fraught relationship between Theroux and Rathbun. However, it does also serve to ask pertinent questions that appear to be what Theroux is ultimately interrogating with this documentary: how responsible are the Church’s members for their actions? And how much does the intense confidence about the potential of Scientology blind its followers to the religion’s reality?