[Image courtesy of Wikipedia]
In 1953 a man named L. Ron Hubbard established the Church of Scientology in Camden, New Jersey. Three years later a man named Jim Jones established the People’s Temple in Indianapolis, a similarly marginal new-religion movement. In 1978, Jim Jones convinced and coerced the 900 members of his congregation, a third of which were children, to drink a cyanide-laced drink, resulting in the greatest loss of American life in a non-natural disaster until the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Now, in 2015, the Church of Scientology has 40,000 members worldwide.
This may seem a churlish and ridiculous comparison – after all, the People’s Temple was a cult, whereas Scientology is a religion – but what is the real distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘cult’ and where do we draw the line?
The Church of Scientology may not have massacred their followers, but there are some worrying similarities in their practices. Engaging vulnerable people, collecting their assets, working members to exhaustion, separating parents and children, enforcing lack of communication with family members and – if you’re to believe the accounts of ex-Scientologists – psychological manipulation, blackmail, torture and inescapable captivity.
[Image courtesy of indiewire.com]
Comparing the ideologies of these two movements highlights an intriguing distinction. The People’s Temple supported communism, equality and racial integration, whereas Scientologists believe in superpowers and galactic overlords. How is it that the far-left believers ended up massacred when the far-out believers found themselves part of a billion-dollar enterprise? Alex Gibney’s latest documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief takes this discussion to new and unsettling depths.
Gibney’s exposé doesn’t go as far to compare Scientology to the People’s Temple, but his film is a scathing insight into L. Ron Hubbard and his big invention, one that pulls no punches and doesn’t hide its scepticism. Utilising interviews with ex-Scientologists, he reveals the dark underbelly of the world’s most secretive religion.
[Image courtesy of HBO]
A central thrust of the film is Scientology’s transition from ‘movement’ to ‘religion’. By blackmailing members of the IRS with a barrage of lawsuits, the society twisted the government’s arm into making Scientology a religion and thereby tax-exempt. This level of underhandedness may be shocking, but it’s nothing compared with what’s to follow. As you learn about the ‘hole’, a prison camp where Scientology members are forced to clean toilets with their tongues, you question how a society like this can continue to exist.
The shocks don’t end there. Gibney’s film attacks Scientology from every angle, revealing how members are blackmailed using personal information gleaned in ‘private auditing sessions’, and how ex-Scientology members are stalked and hounded following their separation from the society. The film even purports it was the Church of Scientology that broke up Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s marriage, with Kidman officially deemed a ‘Potential Trouble Source’. Whether or not you believe the film’s claims, there’s no doubt that this documentary is fascinating and vital viewing.
[Image courtesy of tvmuse.com]
Going Clear was the hot-ticket at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a surge of celebrity audience members meaning that even valid ticket-holders couldn’t get seats, and it’s still causing a stir stateside. Naturally the film has been denounced by the Church of Scientology and ironically their response has only furthered its cause. As websites began appearing with slanderous claims against the film’s interviewees, Going Clear’s portrayal of Scientology as an aggressive, manipulative big-money cult was only further asserted.
It’s not a perfect film and its biases are strongly felt, but Going Clear’s interrogative and scandalous insight into Scientology makes it one of the most shocking films of the year. Forget the Human Centipede – Going Clear will make you feel sickened, outraged and unsettled, but in the best way possible.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Disbelief will be showing at the Hyde Park Picture House on Saturday 25th July at 14.30. Tickets are available here