Last year saw the release of two unique documentary films about Scientology: HBO’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and, more recently, Louis Theroux and John Dower’s My Scientology Movie. Both attempt to understand and explain the controversial religious movement, which was created by prolific science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. The two films critique the religion through interviews with ex-members that expose the alleged malpractices of the organization to the public. My Scientology Movie — which only received a limited release last October in England — is now playing at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.
As a scathing indictment of the methods and customs of the Church of Scientology and its leader, David Miscavige, My Scientology Movie uses investigative journalism to recreate alleged events. Theroux’s attempts at accessing Scientology facilities and producing interviews with active members were almost immediately met with hostility from the organization. Early into filming, the crew was put under surveillance by the church’s investigators, leading to many confrontations that are featured in the film.
Though technically directed by Dower, this film has the fingerprints of Theroux, as he seems to be the driving narrative voice. Like much of his past work for BBC, My Scientology Movie uses humour to underscore serious assertions and arguments. The absurdity of a Scientology member asking the straight-faced Theroux if he understands what the word ‘road’ means when he is caught filming near a compound on a ‘private’ road — later proved to be public — is used to demonstrate the extent of the Church’s distrust.
At just over 90 minutes, the film is fairly short; that, combined with its slick editing, make it easy to digest. Like many other Scientology documentaries, it spends the majority of the time condemning the religion, without thoroughly showcasing the other side of the argument. This is hardly the fault of the filmmakers though and seems to be caused by the lack of cooperation from the secretive Church of Scientology.
Though at times meandering, the story behind My Scientology Movie remains consistently engaging. With no clear beginning or conventionally-satisfying conclusion, the film jumps right into its argument from the start; this sudden thrust into the narrative may leave viewers with little knowledge of the subject feeling left behind. It perhaps could have benefited from more backstory on the religion and its main tenants.
Despite this relatively minor shortcoming, My Scientology Movie provides thought-provoking insight into the Church of Scientology. It should not be missed by those interested in the subject matter or those who simply enjoy a solid documentary. The film is playing at multiple locations in Toronto until May 8.