Scientology: the Donald Trump administration of religions. Sure, sane people can see it for what it actually is. But those sane people can only stare in disbelief as they observe others surrender their money and basic human rights to an authoritarian body. Troubling enough, certainly. But Scientology enjoys a privilege that even the ever-profiting President doesn’t: no taxation, with representation for an organization that collects fees from its constituents as part of its graduated “enlightenment.” (And at some point, the mechanism of our legal system could force the release of Trump’s tax records.)
Join us, now, as we look at five documentaries on scientology that provide some insight into this crazy-quilt of predatory, celebrity-focused exploitation.
Coming in at a lean 30 minutes, John Sweeney’s 2007 BBC documentary can be thought of as a “first shots fired” of films critical of the church. What began as an honest examination into whether or not the organization deserved its purported disturbing reputation, quickly, and—perhaps unintentionally—confirmed that it did. Scientology and Me turned out to be important less due to the documentary itself, but because of Scientology’s interference with the production, and the chilling validation that Sweeney was being carefully observed by the church, as described in his 2010 follow-up, The Secrets of Scientology.
Based in part on her 2015 book, Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, Leah Remini’s very personal, alternately sassy and poignant docuseries, focuses primarily on the stories of escaped former members like herself. Because the series aired well after Going Clear, it was a smart decision on Remini’s part to focus more on her interviewees’ first-hand accounts of their time with the church—there wasn’t much of any substantive exposé left to go around after the earlier film.
John Dower and Louis Theroux’s hilarious documentary—almost mockumentary—is almost less a film than it is a direct provocation of the church. Since Theroux was categorically denied any access in order to make a straight documentary, the filmmakers chose to instead film actors “auditioning” for scenes of alleged church scandals and capture the ensuing chaos of Scientology officials’ reactions, including filming the church’s agents filming the filmmakers in some kind of demented visual evidence-gathering standoff. Look no further than My Scientology Movie for a take on the subject that’s more absurdist fun than it is seriously alarming.
John Sweeney’s 2010 documentary can be read as something of necessary continuation of his 2007 film; part of its subject is the earlier film itself. Among Secrets’ interviewees are a former church official whose job, it turns out, was to keep tabs on Sweeney and have him followed throughout the production of Scientology and Me. That tradition continues in the latter film, though agents from the church did not even bother being clandestine this time, openly stalking the production and refusing to answer Sweeney’s questions, or even confirm who they represented. Remember: even if one isn’t paranoid, that doesn’t mean that somebody isn’t out to get them.
Alex Gibney’s thorough (and thoroughly damning) HBO film, based on Lawrence Wright’s book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, is the documentary to see for those who are not at all familiar with Scientology, and for those with a passing familiarity wishing to possess a better understanding. It’s also the one to see as exemplary investigative journalism by way of filmmaking. From its heartbreaking personal accounts of abuses both psychological and physical, to its eye-opening anecdotes from former members—not to mention its deep, deep recovery of often-startling church archival footage, Going Clear makes for a brutally effective exposé of the church’s exploitation of its members and shady-to-downright-illegal practices. Beware false prophets, indeed.