Sunday, April 24, 2016

Tribeca ’16: My Scientology Movie

Most churches would be happy if you volunteered to help with the next potluck dinner. They would hardly expect you to commit to a billion years of indentured servitude. Nor do most credible religions hide their precepts behind a pay wall. There are Ten Commandments for all Catholics and Protestants, no matter how much you put in the collection plate. The “Church” of Scientology operates differently. Money and secrecy are deeply ingrained in the organization’s culture and modus operandi. Louis Theroux approached Scientology, hoping to get an insider’s perspective, but they told him to go pound sand. Instead, he experiences what it is like to be a target of their “Squirrel Buster” harassment teams in John Dower’s My Scientology Movie, presented by BBC and TV Nation alumnus Louis Theroux, which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Theroux never sent out to do a muck-raking expose. He really wanted to understand the mind-set of Scientology’s true believers. Instead, they threw a bunch of muck at him. Stuck on the outside looking in, Theroux hopes to glean insights into the closed world through a series of dramatic re-enactments of the most controversial episodes of Scientology history. To help him cast key roles, Theroux enlists Marty Rathbun, who served as the Church’s former Inspector General (basically, the chief inquisitor), before breaking with Scientology’s chairman-of-the-board, David Miscavidge.

The resulting re-enactments are almost jaw-droppingly surreal, but also pretty darned scary, in no small measure thanks to the wild-eyed intensity of Andrew Perez playing the part of Miscavidge. Yet, the behavior of the Church-recruited camera crews dogging Theroux and Rathbun are even more bizarre. Through their hostile stalker tactics, the so-called “Squirrel Busters” (Scientologists use more jargon than George Smiley’s People) essentially prove everything defectors like Rathbun claim. However, Theroux does not let his technical advisor off the hook either, diplomatically challenging Rathbun on his role developing the invasive tactics that are now being used against him.

There is an absurdity to Theroux’s interaction with Scientology’s finest that would almost be comical, if it were not so sinister. The frequent spectacle of one camera-operator filming another is worthy of Samuel Beckett and/or Charlie Chaplin. You have to give Theroux credit for putting himself out there. He did not simply splice together some footage and layer on his voice-overs. Several times he faces down high-ranking church enforcer Catherine Fraser (the ex-wife of former Church staffer Jeff Hawkins, who also advises Theroux on Scientology’s extremes), who appears to be charged with keeping his cameras off a stretch if public road bordering their complex.

My Scientology Movie combines humor and guts in a way not seen in documentary form since Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador. While it is not as comprehensive as Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the two docs nicely complement each other. Simultaneously laugh-out-loud uproarious and deeply disturbing, My Scientology Movie is a can’t miss film. Highly recommended for general audiences, it screens again tonight (4/24) as part of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, with subsequent screenings scheduled for May 1st, May 3rd, and May 8th during the upcoming Hot Docs in Toronto.