Film Review 2 – ‘My Scientology Movie’ (2016)

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We have entered a new phase of documentary film making. The whole idea of making a film about the process of making another fictitious film may seem alien at first, but it offers insight a regular “piece to camera” documentary cannot otherwise articulate. In ‘My Scientology Movie‘ the acclaimed broadcaster Louis Theroux delves further into the psyche of the religion via its ex-members. The piece is critical of the church of Scientology; it addresses the emotions and motivations of individuals key to its secretive history.

A lack of access is the main reason this film isn’t a regular documentary. Theroux and many other journalists have asked repeatedly for interviews with key figures in Scientology, but have always been denied this. Therefore, it is addressed early on in the film that the aim is to recreate historic events (a rare television interview, and series of exchanges remembered by ex-members) using actors. The film then becomes a fly-on-the-wall look at the casting process, interviews with ex-members, and documentation of the current members who seem to continuously follow Louis and his crew in surveillance.

Many compare this film-making technique to the fantastic Joshua Oppenheimer film ‘The Act of Killing‘ in which the perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of the 1960’s are asked to recreate their crimes as artworks or short films. The whole process of the casting and the production as a whole asks similar things that would usually be bought about by interviewer’s question… only the line of inquiry is pushed further and further into the violence being discussed.

In the case of ‘My Scientology Movie‘, ex-members including Marty Rathbun discuss their version of events leading to them quitting their subscribed beliefs. Played out by auditioned actors, including Andrew Perez (as leader David Miscavige), the main narrative of a number of important events is underpinned by Louis’ exploration of each. The questions and re-imaging bring about an interesting and cinematic doc. Though it is in good hands with director John Dower, and producer Simon Chinn (‘Man on Wire’, ‘Searching for Sugar Man’), it is by no means a linear scientific study of the subject.

There are, as highlighted in the trailer, some moments of humour. Though the main focus, I feel, is on the astonishing admissions of the main contributors. Put simply; they describe violence. This violence is then fleshed out as discussed. This elevates the title and leads to not only a dark discourse but a force to relive that violence. This is only added to by the response of the Church itself, who are evidently troubled by any kind of questioning held against them.

The form is what makes this film interesting. It has had a mixed response from critics, but ultimately takes risks that pay off. It’s a departure from usual Louis Theroux work for sure, but really an impressively fresh take on a subject deemed difficult to approach.

[rating=5] | Zach Roddis

Documentary | UK, 2015 | 15 | Altitude Film Entertainment | 8th October 2016 (UK) |Dir.John Dower | Louis Theroux