Louis Theroux’s new documentary, My Scientology Movie received a theatre release and plenty of hype. For the mild-mannered and unassuming persona Theroux deploys throughout his documentaries, this is an odd situation. The big screen is certainly more fitting for the larger-than-life style of scientology and its rich and famous devotees.
The film begins with Theroux’s callout on Twitter to reach out to scientologists. The response we are shown is not one of people seeing a man in search of understanding, but of a man hell-bent on a crusade against the Church of Scientology. Theroux does his best to make this not seem the case, offering genuine questions and inquiry. Despite this, the film is definite in its condemnation of Scientology and the abuse some of its higher-ranked members are accused of having committed. Due to the Church’s secrecy and determination not to be attacked, it retreats and refuses to engage in the documentary, leaving Theroux with only the words of disillusioned former members to go on. It’s unfortunate, as it never allows the viewer to feel they have seen the whole picture.
The allegations of abuse are nothing new and have already been revealed and covered thoroughly in other documentaries. Theroux elects to cast actors in the roles of a young David Miscavige (the current leader of Scientology) and Tom Cruise with the help of Mark Rathburn (a noted critic of the Church). This is a technique Theroux borrows from Joshua Oppenheimer in his documentary The Act of Killing. Unfortunately it is not a particularly successful technique as it is guided and formed by Rathburn, a man whose views of the Church are obvious and very strong. Rathburn himself has been implicated in acts of abuse within the Church but shuts down any inquiry by Theroux. This makes it difficult to get a realistic reading on the accuracy of the information Theroux has to work with.
The only communication Theroux has directly with the Church is through legal letters he receives. At one point in the film, he goes to the Church’s own grounds to deliver a response but it is refused. He is not allowed on the grounds and kept as far away as possible. Ultimately, this feels emblematic of the film as a whole. Theroux circles the perimeter, investigates the fringes he can access, but never actually makes any real progress.
Theroux’s efforts cannot be faulted. He continuously attempts to get as much as he can out of the little he has at his disposal. This eventually attracts the interest of the Church and some of its members who appear to feel under attack. Their behaviour in response to a perceived attack, is to film the film crew and harass Rathburn at the airport as he leaves to go home after his work on the film.
As the film ends, Theroux discusses the views he has come to across the making of documentary. In a style frequent viewers would have become accustomed to, he leaves the film not on a note of condemnation, but of understanding. He treats Scientology as any other religion and notes the failings all people are capable of. He looks to the people who hold these beliefs and refuses to condemn or condone, instead settling on acknowledging the belief.
Fundamentally, the film is a flawed one, and does not give the audience a fresh or new view on Scientology. The fault does not lie on Louis Theroux, the Church, or his interview subjects solely, but rather between them. Theroux brings his typical style to offer the audience amusement and pique their interest, but ultimately this is one of Theroux’s lesser works.