My Scientology Movie (2016)

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The word ‘documentary’ conveys both the gravitas of truth and the aspiration of a social purpose beyond mere entertainment. So when you see that label on Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie (2016) you have a right to expect a serious attempt to provide new information about this well-known fringe cult. In reality, however, it is more of a docu-drama comedy that satirises a paranoid organisation’s response to Theroux’s probing of its dark affairs.

Documentaries are not meant to have pre-conceived plotlines and the good ones are exploratory and open-ended. So when Theroux is blocked from information about one of the most guarded cults on the planet he simply invents a dramatisation of what access might have revealed if it in fact actually occurred. Much of the film is about auditioning for actors to play the cult’s arch-demon David Miscavige and celebrity high-priest Tom Cruise. The roles are filled and rehearsals take place under the watchful eye of subversive defector and former Scientology big-wig Mark Rathbun.

The film remediates archival footage of Scientology recruitment videos and the rest is classic Michael Moore-style filmmaker provocation. Theroux is the star of his show and he exploits his freedom to say and do what he pleases provided it can be presented as evidence to support his premise, which is that the organisation behind Scientology actively discourages prying eyes. Inordinate attention is drawn to a section of razor wire fence around its compound that has cameras and lights triggered by movement on either side to prove the organisation has something to hide. Yes, Louis, we know.

While it is engaging, interesting and funny, this film miscalculates the sophistication of audiences who will see right through the artifice of its constructions. That does not mean that the film is a failure. It is a genuinely satirical exposĂ© of ridiculously heavy-footed Scientology operatives attempting to intimidate and film the Theroux crew who in turn are filming them. While two cameras pointing at each other is good for a laugh, any claim to serious documentary status is disingenuous. On the other hand, humour and ridicule is a strong weapon for dealing with organisations that have form in the use of terror tactics over their members. In the age of transparency and accountability Scientology will need to get used to its intemperate responses being on the public record, and to that extent only, Theroux’s film makes a worthwhile contribution.

2 half stars copy

Director: Louis Theroux

Star: Louis Theroux