Church uses well-worn techniques to fend off investigation by BBC's Louis Theroux
For the second time in three years the Church of Scientology is faced with unflattering attention from a documentary film.
In 2015 it was Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, based on a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright. The latest is My Scientology Movie by director John Dower -- a film produced in 2015 but just reaching theaters in the U.S. and on demand platforms this Friday.
The film follows BBC presenter and journalist Louis Theroux on his somewhat quixotic quest to penetrate Scientology.
"More than ten years ago, I approached the church to see if they might let me in to make a documentary. I thought I might be able to bring a sense of nuance and perspective to people's understanding of a faith that has been much ridiculed... I hoped to see it from the inside and make a human connection with its clerics and congregants," Theroux wrote in a statement. "But I was turned down."
Undeterred, Theroux fastened on another way to explore Scientology: by enlisting the aid of former prominent members of the church.
In the course of making my film I came to believe I was being tailed by private investigators.
Among Theroux's chief sources is Marty Rathbun, the former "Inspector General" of the church who became persona non grata with Scientology after quitting the faith (the church says he was fired). He instructs Theroux on the use of an e-meter, for instance, the lie detector-like device that is used in therapy sessions to help Scientologists go "clear." More ominously, Rathbun charges Scientology has gone off the rails under current Scientology leader David Miscavige, whom he describes as violent and unhinged.
The Miscavige depicted in My Scientology Movie is familiar to anyone who has seen Gibney's movie or read Wright's book. Where Theroux and director Dower strike out in new directions is by casting actors to play key Scientology figures -- including Miscavige and Tom Cruise -- in a series of vignettes.
"We came up with a very simple solution -- a group of actors working alongside our key former members to try and gain an insight into what it actually feels like being a Scientologist," Dower wrote in a director's statement.
As seen in the film, Rathbun participates in selecting the actors, writing the scenarios and coaching the actors. In one harrowing scene, actor Andrew Perez -- who is cast to play Miscavige -- throws a violent fit, attacking and insulting a roomful of underlings.
As the church apparently gets wind of Theroux's Scientology "movie within a documentary," the stakes get higher. Suspense and comedy ensue as he and Rathbun are followed around California and confronted by Scientologists at various locations. Absurd standoffs take place where Scientologists point their cameras at Theroux and Rathbun, and Theroux's documentary team returns the favor.
Theroux's unflappable and almost innocent demeanor seems to prove an additional irritant to the Scientologists who are dispatched to knock him off stride. It helps, of course, that Theroux has Rathbun to prepare him for the kind of tactics the church will use to try to rattle him. It doesn't hurt either that Theroux has the power of the BBC to look out for him, not to mention Magnolia Pictures, co-owned by entrepreneur Mark Cuban.
Theroux's engagement with Scientology may not end with the release of his documentary. We learn in the film the church is making its own documentary about Theroux. That's something to which Alex Gibney can relate. After Going Clear film came out, Gibney said the church put someone on his trail to make a film about him.
The church-run website Freedommag.org still maintains a section where Gibney is called a "doctor of propaganda." It blasts several of the people Gibney interviewed for his film including actor and former church member Jason Beghe (described as a "thug"); former church official Mike Rinder (described as "a vicious liar to be avoided"), and former church official Tom DeVocht (described as a "consummate con man"). There are multiple pages on the site devoted to Rathbun, including a "special report" that delves into his alleged "descent into the abyss of insanity."
Theroux has written, "In the course of making my film I came to believe I was being followed by private investigators, someone in Clearwater, Florida (Scientology's spiritual mecca) attempted to hack my emails, we were filmed covertly, I also had the police called on me more than once, not to mention a blizzard of legal letters from Scientology lawyers."
Despite his fraught encounter with the church, Theroux says he is not anti-Scientology per se.
"...At every step I remained open to Scientology's good points and tried to see it for what it is: a system of belief that is not so different from other religions, capable of enlarging the soul as well as crushing the spirit; a tool for wickedness but also of kindness and self-sacrifice." He added, "I still find parts of it oddly seductive."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.