Cults open to questions
Alex Gibney is by far the most prolific active director of feature documentaries; of the two dozen or so films he’s made in recent years (not counting programs made for television) he has tackled an eclectic number of subjects, from Hunter S. Thompson to Enron, from Lance Armstrong to Steve Jobs, from pedophile priests to Scientology. Gibney’s skill, and it’s a formidable one, is to clarify events and situations that are, at first glance, far from clear, and he’s also a master at cutting away the irrelevant stuff at the margins and shining a light on the faces of people who have attempted to avoid scrutiny.
He takes the title,
from the 2013 book by Lawrence Wright, which went a long way towards revealing just what Scientology was all about. Gibney goes further, thanks to some forthright interviews with former grassroots members and former high-ranking officers of the organisation.
Any investigation into what Scientology is all about starts with its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and here Gibney depicts a prolific author of pulp science-fiction books who claimed (erroneously) to have been a war hero and who incorporated many of his sci-fi themes into religious dogma. Damning letters written by Hubbard’s second wife are examined, and rare television interviews with the man himself have been unearthed, providing confirmation that Philip Seymour Hoffman drew heavily on Hubbard to portray the megalomaniac character in The Master.
Hubbard seems to have been an amateur in comparison with his successor, David Miscavige, who, according to the film, used intimidation and blackmail to thwart an attempt by the Internal Revenue Service, America’s tax office, to deny Scientology the status of a religion and thus gain tax exemption.
Of course it’s fascinating to learn more about the Scientology celebrities and here again Gibney doesn’t disappoint. Academy Award winning writer-director Paul Haggis ( Crash), a member for 35 years but now a critic of the cult, reveals his shame at having unquestioningly supported a regime that orders “disconnection” from “suppressive persons” — that is, family and friends not in sympathy with the so-called religion. Proud member John Travolta, on the other hand, who joined when very young, talks enthusiastically about a world without war or poverty, though quite how Scientology will bring this about isn’t made clear. More interesting are the contributions made by Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, who worked for some years at the church’s Los Angeles “celebrity centre” and who was placed in charge of Travolta. As for Tom Cruise, we’re told his marriage to Nicole Kidman was seen as a danger to the cult, and that action was taken against her (Cruise’s bizarre appearance at a fantastically lavish Scientology event that is staged much like the Oscars, and at which he’s presented with the “Freedom Medal of Valor”, is one of the film’s high points).
Gibney packs the film with statistics and mind-boggling insights into the multimilliondollar organisation, and in the process offers the viewer an amazing amount of information about the shadowy cult that retains extraordinary popularity among its adherents. Going Clear is an outstanding example of the investigative documentary. The popular British comedian and actor Russell Brand is not a fan of Britain’s Conservative Party or of Milton Friedman’s theories of economics. In a highly polemical documentary “made” (according to the credits) by Brand and Michael Winterbottom, Brand returns to Grays, the London suburb where he was born and raised, to discover, unsurprisingly, that things are not what they used to be. Brand blames Margaret Thatcher for the fact the rich are richer than ever and the poor are poorer, and his film seems designed as pre-election propaganda. The British election is, of course, now behind us, and the results not what Brand would have wished, so the film has a rather parochial and dated air, though at the same time many of the points it raises are worthy of continued debate and discussion.
The trouble is that Brand is no Michael Moore, the latter being presumably the main influence here. Like Moore, Brand likes to challenge the rich and powerful, and his main targets in this film, apart from David Cameron, are the chief executives of Britain’s financial institutions. During the course of the film, Brand divides his time between visiting the homes of Britain’s battlers and engaging sympathetically with them (and their kids) on a very down-toearth level on the one hand and, on the other, turning up unannounced at the main offices of several banks, demanding to see the man in charge while at the same time haranguing the bemused security staff about how little they’re paid and how many millions of pounds their boss just earned as a bonus.
To say this is preaching to the converted is putting it mildly, and while Brand (and, presumably, Winterbottom) are doubtless sincere in their concern about the ways in which the economic policies of Friedman’s disciples are affect- Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief, The Mafia Only Kills in Summer, ing working class men, women and children, their anger could have been presented more subtly. Scenes in which Brand pontificates in front of schoolchildren clearly too young to comprehend the issues involved add nothing to the debate.
That said, the film is well constructed and has its share of amusing moments, not least the use of speeches made by the PM and Chancellor of the Exchequer that have been transformed by adroit editing into a rap number. In Italian satirist Pif, aka Pierfrancesco Diliberto, making his first feature as director, explores life in Palermo in the 1970s and 80s, when a series of vicious and lethal attacks by the Mafia on judges and other authority figures became a threat to civilised society. These events are seen through the eyes of Arturo, played as a child by Alex Bisconti and as an adult by the director. Arturo is mysteriously obsessed with prime minister Giulio Andreotti, an irony Italians will appreciate more than non-Italians, given that many suspected Andreotti condoned Mafia activities.
Arturo the boy is befriended by a police officer who becomes an early victim of the Mafia; as a young man he is infatuated with Flora (Cristiana Capotondi), who works for an anti-Mafia crusader, duly assassinated, along with several others.
Pif’s amalgamation of newsreel footage, grim re-creations of Mafia killings and a bitterly satirical approach becomes indigestible after a while, and a couple of the performances are misjudged. The combination of jet-black humour and real-life crime makes for a bold, but never entirely convincing, concept.
A scene from
left; Pierfrancesco Diliberto and Cristiana Capotondi in