Going Unclear

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So, the very first and obvious thing I could figure out from having seen Louis Theroux’s 2015 documentary My Scientology Movie is that Theroux has seen The Act of Killing.

The very premise of My Scientology Movie feels like an attempt at using the film to self-indict somebody in the form that Joshua Oppenheimer did in his infamous documentaries on the 1965-66 Pancasila Youth massacres. Early on, the film establishes that Theroux is actually unable to get any actual access to the very controversial and very secretive Church of Scientology and that’s the basis of Theroux trying to recreate one thing – the make-up of the Church of Scientology and their regular process – and trying to actively capture something else – the Church’s outright attempts to obstruct him and his film. He does the second thing aptly as My Scientology Movie is full to the brim with conflicts between Theroux and some representative of the Church, normally with an amusing standoff of cameras with each party demand the other stop filming. And to be fair, that’s more than enough to portray just how oppressive and bullying the Church’s tactics are, but you get the point well before the halfway point in this very short movie and the amusement certainly doesn’t last as long as the end of the second time that same old woman and her “I’m just freelance” cameraman pop up.

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See, the problem with Theroux’s approach as opposed to Oppenheimer’s is that at no point in the film is it very clear who his actual target is meant to be. Is it the actual Church of Scientology given how he expresses an intention early on to cast people as big faces of Scientology such as David Miscavige and Tom Cruise to re-enact allegations of violent behavior on their part? Or is it Mark Rathbun, the former official of the Church, that had walked away under clear hardships on his life since and spoken out against the church’s cruelty over? Rathbun is there as an advisor and informant that practically co-directs most of these re-enactments of beatings and abusive behavior that Rathbun claims occurred (and claims to have been present during), but something about Theroux’s attitude during the film and insistence on accusing (fairly) Rathbun’s own involvement in these actions despite Rathbun’s clear anger at that makes My Scientology Movie feel like, in lieu of its inability to get deep inside The Church’s dealings, to instead use Rathbun as a window for those dealings in more ways than just the one he consents to.

And, I don’t know, using Rathbun in that fashion (especially at the moment where we actually witness his family being implicitly threatened near the end) just seems shitty on Theroux’s part. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that Rathbun certainly has some issues of paranoia and anger management and he’s probably still more than a little bit stuck in the mindset of a Scientologist despite his breaking away from the Church, but he’s also graciously getting involved in Theroux’s project in the hopes that it would spread awareness of what kind of harmful practices the Church indulges in. He’s literally Theroux’s only link to these going-ons and it feels like punching yourself in the face to alienate Rathbun like this.

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Granted, My Scientology Movie doesn’t entirely seem to know how to approach itself and Theroux doesn’t feel anywhere near as confident as he did in his most famous documentary work The Most Hated Family in America. He’s chasing his own tail and between poking and prodding at Rathbun and John Dower’s direction of the film (indeed Theroux is not the director) is at times dropping and forgetting about the re-enactments it wants to stage instead for more moments of Theroux and another member holding cameras at each other for so many senseless minutes as to numb myself to the Scientologist’s bullying. It doesn’t help that My Scientology Movie assumes you’re already well-enough informed on Scientology practices and doesn’t spend any of its much-wasted time informing us on what the Church’s ideology is. Maybe Theroux felt that was unnecessary with a much definitive portrayal provided by Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief but that’s still quite a leap assuming your audience would have already watched another film.

In the end, the whole thing just feels like a great big bucket of flop sweat, so much work and pain and anxiety that Theroux and company have put themselves through only to not really come to any revelatory conclusions and only deciding to stop at a moment when it feels clear that they didn’t really have much of an end-game, just aggravate people who could sue them all into an assisted suicide. Not even Theroux’s portrayal of being targeted or stalked feels entirely correct, as a sudden appearance by an actor who has long been known for being crazy is somehow misread as a direct attack rather than just an infamously not-well person acting out.

Perhaps My Scientology Movie would feel better if it felt funny or like it was worth anything in the end of it all, but instead it just feels like Theroux and Rathbun just hired a few people to get locked inside a room and shouted at and there’s really no conclusions or results to be figured out from what they re-enacted. Just a bunch of abused kids. Theroux didn’t shine any further light on the Church of Scientology’s dealings than even the infamous South Park episode “Trapped in the Closet” and when a cartoon feels more in-depth than your documentary… how is that not supposed to be a disappointment?

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