Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie has been a long time coming. Louis’s been working on it for over a decade, and Louis fans (Therouxvians, if you will) have been speculating over rumours and trailers for several years now. This Monday it was finally released and featured an hour-long live-streamed Q&A with the man himself and producer John Dower.
Louis is fantastic at humanising his subjects and allowing them to tell their own stories. His restraint, cool head, and ability to simply leave pregnant pauses, have an almost hypnotic effect on his interviewees. In this case, that was impossible. He has never before come up against an organisation which systematically trains its adherents to resist basic human empathy. Even previous documentaries like When Louis Met the Nazis and The Most Hated Family in America managed to find humanity in their subjects. The only practising scientologists in My Scientology Movie either gave Louis the silent treatment or repetitively barked at him like a teenage sibling who knows how to push your buttons and wants to send you into meltdown. As a result, the encounters he has with them serve as the comic backbone of the film as he calmly imitates their rhetoric, and gently undermines them with his diplomatic wit.
Scientology requires two responses from society. One is to understand the horror of their psychological manipulation, the other is to laugh at its absurdity. Both are powerful actions, but they usually exist in separate spaces. In My Scientology Movie Louis conjures both in the same sentence. It has the mischievous tone of Weird Weekends, but with the emotional depth of Louis’s more recent work.
The lack of access led Louis and co. to cast actors to recreate events recalled by scientology’s former ‘Inspector General’ Marty Rathbun. This wasn’t a dry, Crime-Watch-esque, recreation. As Louis and Marty cast their Tom Cruise and David Miscaviage (sociopathic Scientology big-wig), there was a unique insight into the character of Miscaviage through the prism of Marty’s perception, and the psychological conditioning programmed into even the most basic Scientology rituals. The results were chilling yet comically absurd.
As it so closely follows the release of Louis’s second Jimmy Saville documentary, it’s impossible to not draw comparisons. The ridiculous exterior obscuring the sinister reality of Saville is extended to the entire ‘religion’ of Scientology. In the Saville documentary, Louis turns the camera on himself and admits to being duped by the manipulative charisma that Saville undeniably wielded. The opposite happened here. Louis wanted the opportunity to, even if only superficially, be seduced by the lifestyle, ideals, and dogma, of Scientology. In previous docs he’s had lipo-suction and appeared in a gay porn film just to have an authentic experience of his subject, but he never gets the opportunity with Scientology. Their doors are firmly closed to him. They pull him into their world of surveillance and intimidation, but even when he’s being harassed, followed, and filmed, he never seems vulnerable. He calmly stands there filming them filming him, politely trying to engage them, killing them with kindness.
The vulnerability in the film comes from Marty. He was chewed up and spat out by Scientology. He isn’t just a broken victim reliving past traumas, he still inhabits the twisted world that Scientology constructed around him. There are many sides to him – a tough exterior, a defiant rage, a transparent claim to no longer care, a confused and subliminal pride in his former life, and a deep loneliness.
In the Q&A, Louis admitted to having lost his temper with the scientologists. The decision to not include it seems to be down to the key motivation behind My Scientology Movie: to provide a new angle. It doesn’t include shaky handheld footage of him yelling at them, because John Sweeney already perfectly illustrated how Scientology’s harassment can break a man. It doesn’t focus on the harrowing testimony of survivors because Going Clear has already painted a depraved picture of abuse. Louis’s audience are already aware of Scientology, so he does something new with the subject, something which only he could do. He pokes the wasps’ nest so he can ask what makes them so buzzy.
The most journalistically brilliant moment of the film isn’t on the Hollywood soundstage or in the confrontations with psychotic scientologists, it’s in a car. Marty and Louis are driving around LA together. Marty is getting shirty with Louis and tells him to ask a genuinely interesting question which hasn’t already been asked six times before. Louis, without missing a beat, asks Marty what it was like to punch fellow interviewee, ex-subordinate of Marty, and ex-scientologist, Marc Headley. This combination of cheek and courage represents the tone of the entire film, and reminds you what Louis does best: being a cheeky, charming, conversational foil.
For those who are expecting a tell-all exposé that will bring Scientology to its knees, the film will be a disappointment. For those expecting a Louis Theroux film about Scientology, the film will be a delight. I keenly anticipate the release of the My Scientology Movie DVD extras, and the Church of Scientology’s Our Louis Theroux Movie.