Much-loved British journalist, Louis Theroux made his big screen debut recently with his feature-length documentary My Scientology Movie. In the wake of Theroux’s turn to darker subject matter – such as alcoholism and brain damage – the film suggested a return to his earlier work which examined some of the zaniest and most enigmatic corporations and phenomena of recent decades: the Westboro Baptist Church, extreme wrestling and the porn industry.
However the documentary is somewhat lacking in Theroux’s classically gawky, school boy charisma that make his other works so endearing. Accompanied by very little actual investigation into the Church of Scientology, its beliefs or its current members, the film leaves the viewer feeling a little empty. Theroux reveals at the beginning of the documentary that the Church of Scientology have adamantly ignored his invitations to be involved with the documentary. Given the enormously secretive nature of the organisation, this puts a pretty significant obstacle in the way of his challenge to investigate Scientology – an obstacle that he doesn’t really overcome. He settles on relying on evidence from the Church’s few and far between public promotional videos and interviews, information already uncovered by previous journalists and, most centrally, a handful of ex-Scientologists. These deserters tell a chilling tale of the violence and intimidation tactics allegedly circulating among the upper levels of the Church, focusing primarily on its leader, David Miscavige.
Theroux brings these incidents to life with a team of LA actors working on semi-improvised scenes informed and overseen by ex-Scientologist, Mark Rathbun. These exercises work not only as dramatisations, but also as investigations into the sociological effects of the Church’s alleged practises, whether it’s the disciplinary action at their punishment facility – ‘the Hole’ – or the use of their lie-detector-resembling E-meter machine. In a similar vein to the 2012 documentary film, The Act of Killing, which explored the mind-sets of former death squad workers for the Indonesian government, these exercises also examined Rathbun’s reaction to coming face-to-face with the acts he defended and likely perpetrated during his time with the Church. As much as these instances make for an interesting viewing experience, you can’t help but feel that they are of little value to actually investigating Scientology or its Church.
Indeed, the documentary seems to focus largely on a couple of individual members and allegations, which for someone with little prior knowledge of Scientology, can be disappointing. It also makes Theroux’s announcement at the beginning that it is his goal to understand the true nature of Scientology feel out of place and a little insincere. Some of the most exciting parts of the documentary are the handful of skirmishes between Theroux and members of the Church of Scientology itself. Angered by Theroux’s attempts to document them, the Church sends him a series of threatening letters, and then proceeds to stalk him, pursuing him in broad daylight for miles along the highway and standing outside the film studio with video cameras. These instances result in bizarre, absurdist stand-offs with cameras facing cameras and Theroux repeatedly asking his pursuers who they are and what they were doing, all to no avail. “You’re harassing me!” announces one woman, finally attempting to leave under the pressure of Theroux’s questioning, to which he politely points out that she is the one who has turned up outside his building to record him.
These instances bring out Theroux’s brutal sincerity and daring to prod sticks where others wouldn’t, something that makes his documentaries so exciting. But in truth, the nature of the documentary just doesn’t allow for enough of that direct confrontation that Theroux is so renowned for. While not a poor documentary in itself, it simply doesn’t have enough of Theroux’s distinct prowess and charm to live up to expectations. Come to think of it, it doesn’t really have enough Scientology either.