The Church of Scientology is notorious for its cutthroat self-defense when it comes to skeptics and critics. The cultish and controversial religious organization, founded in 1955 by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, has rigorously denied and threatened legal action against virtually every disturbing accusation lobbed by former members and "SPs" (Suppressive Persons, a.k.a. anyone who dares go against the Church). Many such allegations are thoroughly documented in HBO's stunning 2015 documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief — including verbal and physical abuse; violent, angry outbursts by its volatile leader, David Miscavige; blackmailing members with "auditing" tapes of their deepest, darkest confessions; child neglect; and wiretapping, stalking, and intimidating litigious ex-members or SPs. Now, two years later, a new documentary aims to decode the ominous church — with a very different approach and decidedly less compelling results.
My Scientology Movie is an attempt by British documentary filmmakers John Dower and Louis Theroux to wrangle their way inside the enigmatic, hermetic organization that insists we're the crazy ones who've got it all wrong. One little problem: Theroux — a less charismatic, more belligerent John Oliver-type — is completely shut out by his intended subject. He and his cameraman are hostilely rebuffed at every turn. They can't even park their cars on the public road outside the Gold Base in California (home of the infamous "Hole" where members are allegedly held captive for months and mistreated) without inciting the wrath of the church's strongmen.
This obviously puts Theroux in a tricky position. He creatively attempts to wriggle out of it by recruiting a couple of former members and bringing their wild accounts of Scientology's disconcerting procedures and its leader's fits of aggression to life, by casting actors to recreate those brutal scenes. His primary firsthand source is Mark "Marty" Rathbun, a former high-ranking executive who joined the church in 1978, ascended the ranks to become Miscavige's second-in-command, and left in 2004. (The church, which has attempted to discredit Rathbun since his departure, claims Rathburn is severely inflating his former role in the organization and access to Miscavige; in an interesting twist, Rathbun himself now denounces the documentary, accusing the filmmakers of misrepresentation as well as deceptive editing.)
Perhaps a deeply weird organization like Scientology merits an documentary as unconventional as My Scientology Movie, whose screwball approach yields bemusing if not groundbreaking footage. The most fascinating moments — besides the colorful archive clips of Miscavige and the world's most famous Scientologist, Tom Cruise — are the bizarre encounters between Theroux and the church's defenders. Those range from that standoff outside the Gold Base to being tailed around L.A. to a baffling intrusion by a bikini-clad woman, who barges into the hotel room where they're doing an interview to demand they stop filming her — even though she wasn't on camera before she waltzed in — before adding that, by the way, she's an actress. (She turns out to be Boardwalk Empire star Paz de la Huerta.) Got all that? No? Well that's because it does not make sense.
Equally perturbing is a confrontation documented in the exclusive clip below, which takes place outside the L.A. studio where they're filming. Lo and behold, a shifty presumed Scientologist and her "freelance cameraman" are lurking there, filming their own mysterious documentary about, apparently, the making of My Scientology Movie. Theroux strolls up to investigate, but the shifty pair has nothing to say other than they're making their own movie. "If you’re filming me, how can I be harassing you?!" asks the incredulous Brit before they walk away.
The doc as a whole struggles to advance the conversation about Scientology and its inner workings — especially in the wake of Going Clear — but it's an entertaining if confounding watch nonetheless. You may not be any more enlightened by the end of My Scientology Movie — or be quite sure what it is you just watched — but you'll have gotten an amusing reminder of just how fucked up and kooky our systems of belief can look, inside and out.