By Jack Holmes
“Come back, stop running away”, Theroux shouts after a mysterious blonde woman he and his crew have found tailing them, taking pictures on her mobile phone and accompanied by a middle-aged man with a camera. The woman ignores them, and begins to walk away “you’re harassing me” she says before disappearing off around a corner. These are the kind of surreal scenarios that My Scientology Movie will be remembered for, often feeling almost too insane not to be staged. But isn’t that exactly the kind of footage we fell in love with Louis Theroux for in the first place?
Theroux is a pretty well-established household name at this point. His work on Weird Weekends, followed by a number of BBC specials focusing on much darker issues are now finding an entirely new generation of viewers through their appearance on Netflix. With that, it makes sense that My Scientology Movie tries to bridge the gap between his weird and wonderful documentaries of the late 90’s, and his more recent work including his special on the Westboro Baptist Church. But taking on Scientology has never been an easy subject, with Theroux and his crew having to fight tooth and nail for even the most basic of information about a “religion”, which has no interest in letting the public or even its lower level members know what really happens behind the closed doors of Scientology.
My Scientology Movie‘s real heroes here is director John Dower, who was at first hesitant about getting involved with a project that was unlike any of his previous work and producer Simon Chinn who’d been with the project right from the start. For those not familiar with Scientology, they have an unflinching level of secrecy regarding their operations. No one is permitted to share any knowledge about the “church”, with their headquarters, ‘Gold Base’, surrounded by a barbed wire fence complete with motion sensors and floodlights, with no one permitted to leave, lest they are shunned for the duration of their life. This means that there are no current Scientologists to interview in the film, there is no backlog of interviews for Theroux to use to narrate his points, bar one TV appearance featuring the current head of the church, David Miscavige.
My Scientology Movie manages to turn this into one of its greatest strength, however, casting actors as key members of Scientology including David Miscavige and Tom Cruise. The actor, Andrew Perez, eventually chosen for Miscavige puts on an impressive performance that brings some real life to the experts that the documentary has managed to get hold of. Whether these recreations are played accurately is difficult to know for sure, but there are a number of speech experts that are chilling and Perez makes the most of this throughout the documentary. These scenes combined with interviews with the church’s former members, a number of whom have raised criminal allegations against the church, and a string of eerie confrontations with the churches former members, result in a documentary that at times feels like a real life Blair Witch.
The danger to the cast and crew is never overt, instead we’re shown their car being tailed for “hours” by a 4×4 with tinted windows, a stranger entering their hotel room unannounced near the start of the documentaries shooting, and one particular scene regarding whether the public has access to one of the roads near to the Scientology Headquarters. The government say yes, however, the Scientologists have a very different idea, and worryingly, what they say seems to go.
It’s this genuinely serious aspect to Scientology that affects Theroux’s debut feature films appeal. Theroux is on top form in the interviews he obtains, however, he’s never given the chance to get to the heart of the real issues and stories, simply because the church refuse to speak to anyone. While not the teams fault, it forces Theroux to bait every Scientologist they come into contact with throughout the documentary in the hopes of getting them to come clean about their work. It never works, and although often entertaining, is never revealing.
If approached as an entertainment film, My Scientology Movie hits all the right notes, suspense and humour are placed into the core of Theroux’s peace. However if you’re approaching the film to gain a better understanding of the organisation and it’s workings from an unbiased standpoint, you should look elsewhere.
Theroux’s film is essential watching, just don’t expect to come away with any deep messages or personal affiliations to the characters and events of the movie. My Scientology Movie is black and white, but if the Scientology it focuses on isn’t, with the level of security and secrecy surrounding them, we may never know.