Sitting down in the Bertha Dochouse in the Bloomsbury Street Curzon cinema, I was fascinated to discover, surveying the dense crowd of people in attendance, that the documentary is growing, blossoming in fact, as a popular genre. From the heavy hitting Netflix series ‘Making a Murderer’, to Joshua Oppenheimer’s terrifying documentation of terrible events such as in ‘The Act of Killing’, people have begun to recognise and respond to the documentarian’s non-fictional view on the stranger, shadowy aspects of our lives.
A vital contributor to this department is Louis Theroux, a documentarian I’m sure you are all familiar with. From his ‘Weird Weekend’ series to his heavy-hitting accounts on alcoholism and Jimmy Saville, Theroux has become an icon in the modern world for his succinct and direct evaluation and revelation of secret worlds, cults and experiences that are no doubt alien to us.
And so, in keeping with this tendency of his past work, Theroux tackles perhaps the most alienating, most abnormal and most culturally attractive topic of discussion for quite some time: The Church of Scientology.
Perhaps to the detriment of Theroux’s report, Scientology is the subject of criticism for a number of documentaries, not least of all the more recent Alex Gibney attempt at unravelling the bizarre goings-on of the cult in his film ‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief’, released just last year.
So what does Theroux do differently? What defines his documentary as the new, significant piece on the weird and attractive world of Scientology?
Well, to begin with, due to his inability to conduct interviews with leading Scientologists such as David Miscavige, Theroux goes about tackling the subject in a highly unusual albeit interesting manner: he produces a film, alongside ex-Scientologist Marty Rathbone, capturing the moment to moment events and situations that would be faced by a scientologist. Casting calls go out, soon Theroux and Rathbone have their Miscavige cast, even as far as to cast their own Tom Cruise, recreating Cruise’s infamous scientologist interview.
However, while the concept is interesting, with regards to the confines of a documentary, it isn’t entirely successful in getting the audience to grips with the peculiarities of the Church of Scientology. To compare it to Gibney, the aforementioned ‘Going Clear’ chronicles the life of Scientology’s founding father, L. Ron Hubbard, the rise of David Miscavige and the auditing and OT systems that make up a large portion of the scientologist mythology.
Theroux’s documentary is lacking in this context. It is very sparing on the details, instead focusing the majority of its time depicting the violent outbursts of David Miscavige, accused by many, not least of all Marty Rathbone, of physically and emotionally abusing fellow members of the church. While this is all important and gives a sense of the dangers of such a privatised organisation, Theroux fails to get down to the darker edges of the religion as a whole, built on the foundations of Hubbard’s beliefs: disconnection, where a scientologist severs ties with a relative or friend who is considered suppressive to the principles of the church, is one of these darker edges that Theroux glosses over, but Gibney tackles head on.
Nevertheless, Theroux’s documentary does have a number of positives to discuss. Firstly, it is a very humorous take on the subject, compared to the candid and emotionally distressing nature of Gibney’s documentary. Scenes showing Theroux’s arguments with supposed members of the cult on whether a dirt track road off the freeway is free to travel on, or if it is indeed owned by a nearby Scientology facility, are almost farcical, with Theroux using his deadpan delivery to instigate amused responses from the audience.
Not only is the humour an asset to Theroux’s investigation, but the interactions and encounters with aforementioned agents of the Church are when the documentary is most effective. The bizarre nature of the agents, the eccentric manner of their dialogue (one Scientologist intercepts Marty Rathbone in an airport, talking him down with jargon such as ‘Stop committing Suppressive Acts’) and the obsessive surveillance of the cameramen are aspects of the Church that Theroux shines a light on, showing us just how perverse and controversial the cult can be at its most dangerous. While Theroux respects the people involved, it is clear to recognise a reaction in the audience, that the documentary is enticing a fearful response in relation to the bizarre behaviour of the members of the Church.
Therefore, all in all, Theroux creates an intriguing look at the Church, through recreations of key events and his encounters with the members of the Church as they investigate his activities. However, while all of this creates an interesting dynamic and a humorous experience, the documentary fails to live up to the lofty heights established by Gibney in his documentary ‘Going Clear’. Missing out on important details, failing to engage with the history of it’s most important member, the founder L. Ron Hubbard: all of these factors hurt the overall effect of an otherwise solid documentary.
With thanks to the Bertha Dochouse for allowing me to press screen the film. The experience of visiting the Dochouse in Bloomsbury Street is highly recommended, especially for those who prefer a non-fictional perspective of the world. Comfortable seating, a focused cinema room to allow for the most direct picture quality, and a plethora of great, unknown documentaries that have gone without the recognition they deserve.