Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

An in-depth documentary about the inner-workings of the Church of Scientology commissioned by HBO from Alex Gibney, based on the book by Lawrence Wright.

Directed by Alex Gibney
Starring Lawrence Wright, Paul Haggis
“If we believe something, then we don’t have to think for ourselves, do we?”

For those of you that don’t know me that well, let me just point out that I don’t subscribe to any kind of religion. I started asking questions about its legitimacy at around aged seven and my staunch refusal to pray at primary school, due to a lack of coherent explanation around the subject, got me into trouble more than once. Don’t get me wrong, I do love a theological argument, as many people that do know me will testify to. Most often, I choose not to become embroiled in such matters as being forced to reduce someone’s faith to tatters is not something I have ever enjoyed. Ignorance is bliss, after all, and that should always be a personal choice, unless no kind of intervention would mean the individual concerned would come to physical or mental harm. How you define ‘mental’ harm, however, is subjective. Now I’ve made my position clear, please read the review knowing that this comes from a neutral and entirely disassociated perspective. In short, I don’t care either way, but now as it’s a film, I need to have an opinion, but it will be on the film, not the theological argument, such as it is here.
I find the notion of all religion ridiculous and as such, I treat all forms of it both with equal incredulity and morbid curiosity, so imagine my glee at being asked to have a look at Alex Gibney’s latest documentary concerning The Church of Scientology. For me, this is like standing at the shooting gallery and being handed an Uzi to play with. I had been thoroughly transfixed by The Armstrong Lie and was very impressed by Gibney’s attention to detail and his ability to draw his talking heads into such candour and the same is true here. He has a knack of aiding and cajoling his subjects at the just the right point that they want to unburden themselves, so his timing should be admired and applauded.
The Church of Scientology’s aggressive attempts to stop this film being released is already well documented and does suggest that the content would cast the organisation in the uncomfortable glare of a previously clueless audience. Why they are clueless is most likely down to the fact that they do not belong to the church itself for whatever reason. Maybe because they are a member of an entirely different flock, or perhaps they are, like me, flockless. Either way, the argument that if you are in it, you probably haven’t seen it and if you’re not, you’re only going to have your suspicions confirmed when you’ve watched it is probably not a job for Gibney to convince you of, but maybe more for Scientology’s marketing department.
This two-hour feature length documentary is very thorough, so sticking with it will not only require patience at times (don’t just fast forward to the bits with John Travolta and Tom Cruise in it) but you’re likely to come out at the other side really wanting to effect some kind of change, or at least see something done. This makes what Gibney does a complete success. Carefully educating the audience into some form of action without lecturing, letting the evidence present itself, as every effective documentarian should.

The people featured in the film are predominantly ex-church members, some of them once enjoyed dizzying heights of both power and influence. As such, the cynic might rightly ask just how much stock to put into their respective testimonies, given that what they are saying now about the church is an actual polar opposite opinion of what they once stood for. As such, how relevant, or believable are their considerations now? Perhaps they’ll just change their minds again. I mean, they did it once already, right? So, why believe them now, if, by their own admission, you couldn’t believe them before? Are they just spinning us another line?

Concentrating its early portion on the life of L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Dionetics and, subsequently, Scientology itself, the documentary takes every possible swing at its main target and Gibney could be accused of being a little too enamoured with Lawrence Wright’s work to call him an effectively neutral canvass on which to paint the story of some of the most bizarre examples of actions carried out in the name of religion since Henry VIII created The Church of England.

In fact, the subject of GOD never actually raises its head at all. Gibney makes no apologies for calling Scientology out for being what everybody that’s not involved (and more than a handful of those that have) already knew it was. Accusations of it being little more than a cult employing a liberal sprinkling of indoctrination and an unhealthy pursuit of massive wealth and charitable status for the purposes of tax avoidance are relentless and amplified with each carefully arranged argument.

Yes, there are stories of the higher echelons of the church and the tales of the secrets unfolded when ‘Going Clear’ that may actually make you laugh out loud, even though you know there are some very rich, influential people that believe this stuff, and the thought may occur to you that maybe you shouldn’t be laughing. Maybe, you should be really worried. Because, really, this just isn’t funny at all.

The documentary delves deeply into the ugly side of the Church and interviews many people that are very keen to speak out about their experiences with the organisation. Their methods of getting new members to open up their most intimate secrets under the guise unburdening, in order to possibly blackmail them with the same confessions should they revolt at a later date.  Their tactics to illicit monies from their members is also investigated, using much the same kind of alleged bullying tactics and there are many examples laid out here for you as evidence of the Church carrying out these very threats.

Often, you will find yourself asking (as did the IRS) if this is really a religion at all, but instead actually nothing more than long-term, well-planned opportunity to make vast sums of money through what is little more than extortion. Much celebration is made of the Church being granted its charitable status which meant seeming untouchability for the Church, and the certain loss of power faced by the IRS and the American government. This was only achieved by swamping the IRS with lawsuits by the Church’s members, and in a very dark day for everyone, the choice was made to allow the Church to become a charity, on the promise that all of these lawsuits would magically disappear, which they did.

In all, a very sobering and effective documentary that makes the viewer wonder just what the hell has happened and how they got away with it, and are still continuing to do so? The likes of Tom Cruise and John Travolta do not fare well here at all, but whilst they are painted as ambassadors for the Church, they are never actually accused of doing anything wrong. Gibney and Wright prefer to highlight that these megastars don’t go out of their way to do anything right either, so whilst not guilty, they are far from innocent either.

A fascinating expose that lifts the ugly underbelly of an organisation that frankly deserves the harsh glare of justice shining on it for at least a little while, in order to raise awareness. Gibney continues to impress with his excellent work, even if this is probably his least neutral effort to date.

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