April 2, 2015

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Alex Gibney, 2015
Anyone familiar with The Church of Scientology likely has preconceived notions about it. It’s certainly been a force, at times a prominent one, in our modern American culture. Some don’t want to call it a religion, immediately dismissing it as a cult. Most people associate it with Tom Cruise, one of the more outspoken celebrity members. Some people may recall Isaac Hayes quitting his role as Chef on South Park after they decided to create an episode ripping it apart. With Cruise specifically, his involvement with the church has caused many to judge him differently, to question him. And would they be wrong to look at him differently? To question his judgement? After all, it is a “religion” created by the late L. Ron Hubbard, a controversial science fiction writer who spent a portion of his life hiding from the U.S. government because of tax debt. The religion discounts the field of psychology. It promotes the belief that we are all immortal beings, forced to carry the weight of past life trauma. 

We learn in this documentary, it’s an organization with a lot of secrets. A lot of secrets that were concealed quite well for a long period of time. That may be the surprising element with this documentary, the magnitude of dark shit that has gone on for so long without being exposed to the public. The film interviews past members. These past members, which include screenwriter Paul Haggis and Sylvia Taylor, are not just low people on the totem pole of the Church. The interviewees are former high ranking members. Some of them even worked alongside Hubbard before his passing and even worked alongside now-leader David Miscavige. Because of this, you assume much of this is the truth. Child abuse, neglect, abusive labor, tax dodging, threats, larceny, harassment, greed, the list goes on. Even if you go into this film having a low opinion of Scientology, it’s sure to sink even lower. Even if you have heard some horror stories in the past, you are going to discover something you hadn’t known already. What does this film say about us as humans? Are we weak? Are we vulnerable? At times, most definitely. History shows that that the cults of the world prey upon the weak. There is always a charismatic, idealistic leader that tells everyone things that they want to hear and through elaborate and well-orchestrated manipulation he is able to gain followers. It's very difficult to discern The Church of Scientology from a cult. If they weren't able to weasel their way into tax-exempt status, where would it be now? If they weren't clever enough to pick up a few of the high-profile celebrity pitch-men would it even be in the dialogue? Is the organization now filled with members who, sort of like Christians, don't subscribe to all of the ideology but choose to just trudge ahead and turn the skepticism off in their minds? 

It will be interesting to see if this film has the same damaging effect on the organization that Blackfish had to Seaworld. It wouldn’t be surprising. This is the power of documentary film-making, when an expose can show you unforgettable things. Much kudos to HBO, it was certainly a bold decision to get behind this film. They must have been flooded with phone calls and legal threats from the church. Instead of hiding under their desks, they decided to green light a doc under their name that says a lot of things that people had been afraid to talk about for a long time. 

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