|'just as prosecutions within Catholicism would have been easier had the religion not been declared a state, here investigation would have been more forthcoming had the cult no been declared a religion'|
At some point during Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief, his expose of the 'weird' religion, popularised in Hollywood by Tom Cruise and John Travolta, amongst others, an interview subject points out that followers of Scientology cannot distil down to a questioner what the religion's core beliefs are. Christianity, Islam, Judaism and others may be complicated, he suggests, but their followers can give you a simple synopsis of what they believe in thirty seconds, whilst Scientologists cannot.
The question of 'what is Scientology?' runs throughout Gibney's film, both as its raison d'être and as its challenge; can a documentary maker, even one as good as Gibney, make a film out of an undefinable religion, full of members who refuse to speak to him?
The answer is of course yes. You don't need to know exactly what Scientology is to know that something odd is going on around it and Gibney excels in presenting sometimes solid, sometimes slightly circumstantial evidence that points to those facts. That does not, however, mean that Going Clear gets by entirely. For the second time recently (the other being 2012's Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God), it feels as though the director has arrived at a story at just the wrong time. In Mea Maxima Culpa, Gibney could not have known that his film would arrive just months before Joseph Ratzinger resigned the papal seat, casting elements of his third act in potential new light. There's nothing quite that drastic from the Church of Scientology yet, but Gibney himself points out that it is coming; with falling membership, a single dictatorial leader, a government thinking twice about past decisions, celebrity supporters who are less vocal in their support; we're surely only a domino fall away from some sort of significant Scientology event.
As it is, Going Clear still manages to shed new light on what goes on inside the church. Gibney's polemic hinges on a similar point to, again, Mea Maxima Culpa; just as prosecutions within Catholicism would have been easier had the religion not been declared a state, here investigation would have been more forthcoming had the cult not been declared a religion. Scientology's first amendment rights protect it in certain ways - not least of all, from a taxation perspective - making serious scrutiny almost impossible.
Though almost unwritten and unsaid within the film, one imagines for legal reasons (Going Clear is peppered by title cards of disclaimers, which feel placed solely by a legal hand), Gibney clearly contests that Scientology is less a religion, more an overt money making venture, specifically for the gain of head honcho David Miscavige. To Gibney's credit, and in-keeping with his other work, he refuses to stop at the conjecture that Scientologists are crazy; there is method behind the madness and that method leads to money and lots of it. The Church has 'a book value of $1.75 billion, about $1.5 billion of which is tied up in real estate', according to a Forbes article and Gibney's film.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about what Gibney reveals is that some of Scientology seems to have an element of worth, or at least well-meaning intention. Former Scientologist Paul Haggis likens the early stages of their process to other forms of self-help. Another contributor points to the fact that parts of it are extremely Freudian and that the regular one-to-one sessions, carried out by so-called auditors, have very close roots to psychoanalysis. Gibney's film then is a tragedy, a fall of some good ideas into madness and money, spun out to the point where it clearly harms individuals and collectives. It's not his clearest documentary, but to get even that much from subjects who now won't speak to him, or anyone else, is some form of film-making victory.
Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief was playing on all Sky platforms.