My Scientology Movie, Louis Theroux’s cinematic debut, reveals some of the ugly truths about the most enigmatic of organisations. The documentary relies heavily on the accounts of Mark Rathbun, a member of the organisation for 30 years (or more like 25, ‘as I was very laidback for the first five.’) This massaging of the truth sets the scene for a documentary about a cult that moulds its own version of the truth, and hushes up any hints of corruption.
Theroux creatively goes about helping to put Rathbun in the right mind-set by casting actors to play the role of David Miscavige, the leader of Scientology, in the hope of teasing more information out of him, which in turn, achieves a sense of authenticity for the viewer. One of the actors, Andrew Perez, who could certainly use the exposure to propel his own acting career, captures the aggression and militancy Rathbun looks for in the casting. So Perez becomes our Miscavige, enabling Theroux to play out other experiences described by Rathbun. We discover the mind control training drills and the techniques to teach tolerance (which Theroux is already comically good at as he keeps his signature straight, unflinching face whilst being verbally abused).
Nothing will intimidate Theroux, however for an SP (Suppressive Person)—that is to say, someone who has left the organisation—the reality is harsh. If anyone speaks out against them, the leader sends out ‘Squirrel Busters’ to harass and intimidate them. Accounts of physical abuse by David Misgavige are severely denied, but made clear by ex-members. However, one certainty we do have is that Scientology is effectively a business that has the primary aim of making money. An intricately drawn diagram indicates the cost of each level to achieve the highest possible status, with the whole process costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. As Rathbun comments, the real world becomes “alien”, “a kind of suicide”. The only contacts you have are in Scientology, you’ve poured money and time into it, so exit almost becomes unfathomable.
Despite these revelations of corruption, My Scientology Movie does face a kind of stagnancy, primarily because Rathbun seems to be ‘tiptoeing’ around the truth, laying a rather strong emphasis on the power-hungry figure of David Miscavige, rather than speaking openly about his own role during his high profile years. Frustrations build as Rathbun is incessantly probed by Theroux for more revealing answers. After Scientologists verbally abuse Rathbun on camera for the part he is playing in the making of the documentary, Theroux wastes no time in highlighting hypocrisy as he asks about Rathbun’s role in threatening Suppressive People. Rathbun’s sudden spew of hostility is a shock to the viewer, reminding us this is not necessarily a figure we can trust.
However, Theroux’s overall message humanises Scientologists, depicting them as victims of an organisation that fundamentally centres itself on an abuse of power. They are the flock that have become indoctrinated with thoughts of bettering themselves and others in a world without ills, yet are dragged into the creation of a new life filled with hierarchy, belittlement and control.