LAURIE CHEN takes a look at ‘Going Clear’, the documentary on Scientology that’s causing a stir.
Sometimes life is stranger than fiction. At least that’s the impression gathered from the various real life accounts of ex-Scientologists, which form the basis of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. These heartfelt interviews with disillusioned ex-members of the cult-like religion are, by turns, harrowing and surreal with more than a slight touch of morbid humour.
It is to award-winning director Alex Gibney’s credit that he manages to interweave these narratives so skilfully with a comprehensive potted history of Scientology’s origins, drawn from journalist Lawrence Wright’s acclaimed book. The film meticulously traces the journey of Scientology from the fantasy of sci-fi author and compulsive liar L. Ron Hubbard, to a shady global network that collects large amounts of money with the same fervent enthusiasm as it recruits new members.
For those who fancied Scientology as some hare-brained cult whose most renowned proponent is famous (or infamous, to be precise) for jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch, the profoundly disturbing claims made in this documentary come as an unwelcome shock. Scientology’s creepy image is just the tip of the iceberg, as former high-ranking church executives recall in detail the relentless verbal, emotional and physical abuse they suffered at the hands of the church leader, David Miscavige, in The Hole – a church-ran correctional facility for so-called Suppressive Persons. Punishments included up to 16 hours a day of forced labour in gulag-like conditions, regular beatings and solitary confinement.
Over the course of the film, we also find that being labelled a Suppressive Person, and hence a threat to the church, has devastatingly personal consequences. Survivors, for that is perhaps the only appropriate term, speak of being suddenly cut off from whole families and denied the chance to communicate with their children and grandchildren ever again. Others are even banished simply for coming out as gay, or for suffering from mental illness.
The endgame of Scientology is to create, in L. Ron Hubbard’s words, a world “without criminals, without insanity, without war” and in which all pain and trauma are eradicated completely from the human psyche. Needless to say, Scientology’s utopia resembles more a sterile dystopia, built on fear, control and exploitation on a massive scale. Gibney’s sensitive treatment of his interviewees’ narratives ensures that Going Clear never edges towards sensationalism for its own sake. Ultimately, it leaves you with an infinitely deep sense of compassion for these people who have imprisoned themselves in a toxic belief system.
Director: Alex Gibney
Cast: Lawrence Wright, Mike Rinder, Marty Rathbun
Running Time: 119 minutes