‘My Scientology Movie’ marks the first venture by veteran documentary maker Louis Theroux into the world of feature-length documentary movies. It follows Theroux’s attempts to investigate the inner workings and power structures at play within the world’s most secretive ‘religion’, using dramatic recreations of alleged events within the high command of Scientology (the Sea-Org), and attempts to understand the highly reclusive figure of David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology.
“what’s absent is the most important characteristic of Theroux’s documentaries: access.”
It has all the tropes of a Theroux documentary: awkward stares, awkward silences, awkward Louis doing his usual awkward facial expressions; but what’s absent is the most important characteristic of Theroux’s documentaries: access. It’s access that is the key to Theroux’s unique documentary style and he thrives on analysis and interviews which are only available through his position within groups, seeing the people and movements through his own eyes.
In contrast, the drive behind ‘My Scientology Movie’ is the movie within a movie, the reconstructions of alleged events as described by Mark ‘Marty’ Rathbun, the former senior executive of Scientology and the group’s most high profile defector. Due to lack of access the film relies heavily on Rathbun’s expertise and memories, and it’s Rathbun that’s the architect of the film, telling Theroux and the audience about how the group is run. The result is that we’re treated to an image of Scientology and its leader as seen through Rathbun’s eyes instead of Theroux’s own. It’s ‘Rathbun’s Scientology Movie’ not Louis’.
“The film sacrifices seriousness and detail for laughs”
Theroux fails to push Rathbun over his role in Scientology and some of his self-confessed tactics. He seems to hold back when Rathbun rebuts him and surprisingly doesn’t push to clarify what he meant by his self-portrayal as the ‘baddest assed dude in Scientology’. There’s a feeling throughout that Rathbun is deliberately holding back, leaving a sour taste when it dawns that the reconstructions are possibly being edited by Rathbun to remove unsavoury images of his own past and the role he played within the organisation. Frustratingly it hints at a better movie waiting to come out.
The film sacrifices seriousness and detail for laughs, and there are some genuinely hilarious moments including the bizarre scene of fake David Miscavige playing jenga with fake Tom Cruise, and a protracted argument regarding access to a disputed road. Juxtaposed onto this is a genuine atmosphere of paranoia throughout the whole film, including shadowy tailgating SUV’s and mysterious camera crews from Scientology filming Theroux (we later learn that the organisation will be making its own documentary about him). The reconstruction of alleged beatings by Miscavige of ‘subversive’ Sea-Org members, and apparent threats to Marty’s family makes for some extremely uncomfortable viewing. While it’s easy to laugh at the strange world of Scientology the movie isn’t afraid to let us know that it can be dangerous if you cross it.
“It’s funny, at times dramatic, but ultimately disjointed and confused.”
In short, ‘My Scientology Movie’ is a solid documentary film that posits a novel way to get around the problem of access inherent throughout the film. It’s funny, at times dramatic, but ultimately disjointed and confused. By including reconstructions, frustrating encounters with Scientologists that ultimately lead nowhere, and interviews with ex-members, the film doesn’t settle or pick one medium to focus on. It’s likely to delight and shock audiences but feels hollow when compared to Theroux’s previous work.