Empire (UK) - - ON SCREEN - Phil de Semlyen

direc­tor John Dower cast Louis Th­er­oux, Tom De Vocht, Marty Rath­bun

Plot BBC film­maker Louis Th­er­oux sets out to make a documentary about Scientology, but is soon stymied by its lead­ers’ re­fusal to par­tic­i­pate. In­stead, he de­cides to cast ac­tors to do the job for them.


documentary will al­ways guar­an­tee you an au­di­ence. A small army of lawyers, in the first in­stance. Alex Gib­ney es­ti­mates 160 le­gal ea­gles watched last year’s Go­ing Clear be­fore its re­lease, and it’s hard to imag­ine Louis Th­er­oux’s ad­di­tion to L Ron Hub­bard’s DVD cup­board wasn’t given a sim­i­larly fine-toothed treat­ment. Few peo­ple are more likely to goad this liti­gious or­gan­i­sa­tion than a man who’s turned the ta­bles on ev­ery­one from white su­prem­a­cists to West­boro Bap­tist’s ra­bid flock just by ask­ing the right ques­tions, lis­ten­ing a lot and be­ing dis­arm­ingly goofy.

But while the BBC’S mild-man­nered as­sas­sin brings all his weapons to bear here — awk­ward si­lences, in­no­cent but in­sis­tent prob­ing, vast re­serves of like­abil­ity — he some­what meets his match with Scientology. Stonewalled by its bug-eyed loy­al­ists, threat­ened by its lawyers and un­able to get close to its leader David Mis­cav­ige, Th­er­oux in­stead chooses to recre­ate its prac­tices (and, more per­ti­nently, mal­prac­tices) us­ing ac­tors he casts in ses­sions, a lit­tle guid­ance from for­mer Scien­tol­o­gist-turned-whistle­blower Marty Rath­bun and the odd visit to head­quar­ters.

Un­like one of the main in­spi­ra­tions, Joshua Op­pen­heimer’s The Act Of Killing, Th­er­oux’s gam­bit is only half suc­cess­ful. Op­pen­heimer’s film has real peo­ple recre­at­ing their own shock­ing acts of geno­cide; here Th­er­oux’s ac­tors make will­ing sur­ro­gates, but they’re no sub­sti­tute for ac­cess to the or­gan­i­sa­tion it­self.

Where they do pay off is in a re­cre­ation of the in­fa­mous Hole, a prison for se­nior Scien­tol­o­gists (or Sea Orgs) where the most ex­treme abuse is al­leged to have taken place. It leads to the film’s most im­pact­ful scene, a de­pic­tion of bul­ly­ing and the abuse of power that’s shock­ing even on a film set. The treat­ment of ‘Sup­pres­sive Per­sons’ — Scientology’s sup­posed apos­tates — is tack­led with ter­ri­fy­ing gusto by the ac­tor play­ing Mis­cav­ige. It’s clearly one role you wouldn’t want to go Method for.

At other times, though, the mock-ups are a blunter de­vice. The ac­tors sit awk­wardly while Rath­bun ex­plains the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s doc­trines, and there’s lit­tle in his ex­pla­na­tion of its world view, tools of ma­nip­u­la­tion and in­tim­i­da­tion strate­gies that hasn’t al­ready been cov­ered in

Go­ing Clear and Panorama’s ex­plo­sive 2007 documentary Scientology And Me.

That’s not to say Th­er­oux doesn’t bur­row gen­tly un­der his sub­ject’s skin. The best scenes lay bare the para­noia and in­se­cu­rity that seeps from the or­gan­i­sa­tion. “Af­ter four hours of the same car be­ing be­hind you,” he notes dur­ing a drive through LA, “you start to get sus­pi­cious.” Of­ten lin­ger­ing on the edge of his frame are edgy foot­sol­diers, awk­wardly film­ing him as his crew films them. Only the good-na­tured Th­er­oux seems to stand between them and an An­chor­man-style cam­era crew bat­tle.

My Scientology Movie is full of such meta mo­ments, in­clud­ing a long ar­gu­ment with goons out­side Scientology’s dusty Cal­i­for­nian com­pound about whether he’s on its land il­le­gally. It ends with them slink­ing off. “You don’t have to go,” Th­er­oux shouts af­ter them. “You’re not tres­pass­ing.” It’s the film in mi­cro­cosm: funny, oc­ca­sion­ally men­ac­ing, but ul­ti­mately stranded just out­side the in­ner sanc­tum.

ver­dict th­er­oux’s first big-screen doc is an en­ter­tain­ing af­fair, pep­pered with sur­real mo­ments and wry wit, but its no­to­ri­ously elu­sive sub­ject re­mains just out of reach.

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