LOUIS THEROUX: MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE. Louis Theroux, Mark Rathbun, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter, Jeff Hawkins, Tom De Vocht. Directed by John Dower. 99 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).
Louis Theroux’s particular brand of documentary filmmaking may appeal to every audience. His interview techniques are unconventional, relying heavily on his own almost absurd naiveté to ask probing questions, and the way he interacts with his subjects, establishing friendships only to later use them to achieve more personal answers, can verge on bullying. This much is clear from his years of producing BBC series ‘Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends’, ‘When Louis Met…’ and a number of specials, wherein his specialist subjects were marginalised subcultures. Most audiences will have come across examples of his work on ABC or SBS, and will likely be immune to (or at least accustomed to) his quirks. This is fortunate then, for in this film, as Louis turns his attention to the secretive Church of Scientology in America, the results are both fascinating, revealing, and regularly funny.
After years of seeking an ‘in’ with Scientology for a unique documentary, Louis realised that he would never be granted such unprecedented access. Instead, he decided to contact a number of SPs, or ‘Suppressive Persons’, former members of the Church who are now invested in shining a light on its allegedly troubling practices. Using these SPs and their testimonies, Louis recreates a number of dramatic scenes within the Church, auditioning young actors to play roles in these recreations and having SPs sit in on and direct said scenes.
Chief among the SPs is Marty Rathbun, former Inspector General of the Religious Technology Centre. Rathbun was formerly in charge of suppressing SPs until he ‘blew’, that is, left the Church, in 2004. The practices utilised by Rathbun in this capacity are left somewhat vague, but as the film progresses and Louis’ own documentary comes to the attention of the Church, their intimidation and suppression techniques are explicitly used to intimidate Louis and the production. Numerous letters from legal counsel are sent to the production, anonymous cars tail their crew around Los Angeles, rival camera crews appear outside their studio without explanation (though the Church later announced a rival documentary on Louis himself), and ‘Squirrel busters’ – Church members set on discrediting and harassing SPs who recreate Church-specific ‘tech’ or rituals outside of the organisation – stalk Rathbun with veiled threats and scathing rebukes.
Although Louis’ paranoia does understandably bubble up (some of his assumptions are surprisingly quick for a supposedly impartial documentarian), he is still a winning presence in front of the camera. When he confronts the cameramen appearing near their shoot with his own iPhone drawn and filming, his questions take on a ridiculous, almost farcical quality – ‘Can I talk to you? Are you filming a documentary too? What’s yours about?’ His physical presence, somewhat gawky and marked by his pregnant pauses, is both gently funny to audiences and disarming to his subjects. He has finely honed his craft, and his results speak for themselves.
The spectre looming over the whole production belongs to David Miscavige, the mysterious Chairman of Scientology, who assumed the role after the passing of founder L. Ron Hubbard. Allegations of physical abuse, as well as verbal altercations and psychological terrorism, hang over Miscavige. He himself appears only in archival footage of their annual galas, but Louis casts intense young actor Andrew Perez to fill his shoes for their recreations. Miscavige has repeatedly denied all allegations against him, but one particularly harrowing scene, directed by Rathbun from his memories of his final days in the Church, has him viciously berating and assaulting senior church members. It’s filmed as though by a security camera, with Rathbun walking around invisibly and blocking characters as it plays out, becoming a surreal but tense exploration of the faith’s grip on these people. Other nervous moments include the arrival of a Scientologist security car when the crew is filming outside the notorious Gold Base in California, and the subsequent calling of law enforcement (Louis shines in these scenes, both confident yet so harmless-looking that the police can have no quarrel with him).
Technically, the documentary doesn’t break any moulds (although the score from Dan Jones is far more playfully genre hat-tipping than it needs to be), and there is a niggling sense of the film’s one-sidedness. No one from within the Church was made available for an interview, so it’s hard to begrudge that of director John Dower. However, if religious yourself, you certainly wouldn’t want Louis, a professed atheist, turning his attention to your own faith. All said though, ‘My Scientology Movie’ is a success, and alongside Alex Gibney’s terrific 2015 documentary ‘Going Clear’, should create a handy double-bill for anyone interesting in understanding the enigmatic religion.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 8.