A year after first being shown at the BFI London Film Festival, Louis Theroux’s Scientology documentary finally gets a release in the UK. But, with Alex Gibney’s film Going Clear having been shown on British TV just a year ago, is there space for another documentary about the secretive church?
A Q&A session took place after the movie with Theroux and director John Dower (Thrilla in Manila, Bradley Wiggins: A Year in Yellow) where they spoke about the fact that, with Gibney’s film coming out during the production of Theroux’s movie, they had a choice to make. There were no thoughts of stopping the film, but a direction needed to be established so they didn’t end up creating the same movie. What director Dower decided, was to bring Theroux back to his Weird Weekend times and thus a touch of comedy was added.
I should say that I’ve been a fan of Louis Theroux’s work for many, many years. It wasn’t until I was introducing a friend to his Weird Weekend series that I saw the comedy in it though. I always took them as a documentary maker trying to make serious films. Whereas my friend instantly loved them, believing Theroux was ‘taking the piss’ out of his subjects. This made me see them in a whole new light.
So now we have two documentaries about the same subject in a relatively short space of time. Obviously, there are only a handful of people you can speak to about the same subject (and most of the people do appear in both documentaries). Also, Theroux and Dower always knew that they weren’t going to actually get any interviews with any existing Scientologists (who believe journalists are the same as sexual predators), so had to take a different tact. What they chose was to re-enact some notorious scenes, alleged to have taken place within the church.
This is where Marty Rathbun comes in and quickly becomes one of the main focus points of the documentary. Rathbun was, allegedly, high-up within the church but now elects to speak out about his time there along with a few others: Tom De Vocht, Jefferson Hawkins, Marc Headley and Steven Mango. Auditions are held to find a David Miscavige, the leader of the church since L. Ron Hubbard’s death, as well as Tom Cruise.
You get to see a few re-enactments though you are always left wondering how real they are, particularly as Rathbun has a decidedly spikey nature. He seems to rile easily and is, understandably, not happy when existing Scientologists begin harassing him daily because of his involvement in the film. The actor playing Miscavige, Andrew Perez (Bastards y Diablos, The Reluctant Good Knight) is absolutely fabulous in the role though and it makes the re-enactments worth watching.
When things take a turn for the unusual, and more on Theroux’s usual lines, would be when the church decides to make their own documentary, on Louis Theroux. Suddenly cameramen, with random ‘handlers’ start showing up outside the studio and filming him. Whenever he’s near their premises and someone comes to shoo him away, there is also always a camera filming.
It’s these moments, along with Perez’s performance and the famous Theroux-uncomfortable-stare that we’ve come to know and love, that makes My Scientology Movie worth watching. However, what it lacks is any real substance, any big revelation or anything we didn’t already know. You have to feel for everyone involved as Gibney’s film beat the to the punch and is crammed with information about the church. That said, you also have to wonder, particularly with Theroux’s recent re-visit to his Jimmy Saville documentary, whether he won’t be looking back on this in years to come as an opportunity missed.