ALEX GIBNEY is a documentary filmmaker known to have specialised
in finding skeletons in cupboards. The skeletons in Going
Clear: Scientology and the prison of belief (Cert. 15) make as
interesting, not to mention chilling, a film as his Mea Maxima
Culpa, about Roman Catholic clerical abuse (Arts, 15 February
The Church of Scientology believes that human beings need to
recover their true nature through processes such as "auditing"
painful experiences. Going clear is the stage reached when
followers move from their present state to greater self-awareness.
Scientology's notoriety stems from its methodologies and financial
practices. The documentary seizes on these aspects, interviewing
former Scientologists who use words such as "brainwashed",
"fleeced", and "intimidated" to describe their encounters with this
Going Clear's reliance on public figures such as the
film director Paul Haggis (Crash), as well as ordinary
people who temporarily became involved with this rich, tax-exempt
organisation, may seem a little one-sided. The failure to meet a
single current member has fuelled the organisation's campaign to
discredit the film. Gibney defends this omission, saying that he
feared an ambush, not a dialogue.
We do get scenes, culled from library clips, involving
practitioners such as the actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Given how litigious the Board of Religious Technology,
Scientology's official title, can be, it is unsurprising that the
film was vetted by 160 lawyers before its HBO screening on US
television. Lawrence Wright's book of the same name, on which the
film is based, was never published in the UK after
Scientologists threatened legal action.
The price apostates have paid has often been very high:
marriages and families have broken up, personal reputations have
been destroyed, and people have been left in fragile states of
mind. Scientology has labelled these damaged personalities as
unreliable witnesses. It also took exception to the director's
inserted footage of a Nazi concentration camp when one ex-member
described Scientology as a prison.
Even so, the film is an amazing portrayal of religion's power to
entice seemingly level-headed people into an initially attractive
lifestyle that promises that the next stop is infinity.
This documentary, high on facts, also crosses into feature film
through dramatised re-enactments. That may be OK, but The
Master (2012), inspired by Scientology's founder, L. Ron
Hubbard, does it even better. That is because drama is relatively
free of legal constraints and, more importantly, provides an
emotional depth through its characterisations which Gibney's craft,
considerable though it is, cannot match.