Scientology Documentary Earns Acclaim and Controversy

“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, an HBO produced documentary, takes a critical but sincere look at the secretive religious organization, scientology, that has produced a great deal of attention.

Based on a 2013 book by journalist Lawrence Wright, the film makes use of both a historical storytelling approach to detail Scientology (recreation through dramatic staging as well as archival footage) and also candid interviews with several former members. They explain its founding, several key historical points in its development, its infamous litigiousness for suppressing criticism and its often abusive treatment of dissenting members.

The film’s director, Alex Gibney, has previously received Emmys and an Academy Award for his documentaries “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” and “Taxi to the Dark Side,” respectively, and he keeps the film almost meticulously fact based, using hard evidence to illustrate greater points of skepticism about the religion and its dangers. There is a particularly disturbing scene describing child abuse against a daughter of a church member, Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, described as “John Travolta’s handler.” Gibney criticized celebrity members of the Church both in the film and later in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter when he said, “People like Tom Cruise and John Travolta have an affirmative responsibility to speak out about these abuses and when they don’t they’re endorsing them.”

The creators describe the psychology of cults and the ways that the church makes use of psychical and mental abuse as well as deliberate manipulation of information to take and keep members. “People read about Scientology with a sneer on their face, ‘that could never happen to me’” said Wright in the same interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “I think the evidence in the book, and now in the film, is that very caring, intelligent, discerning and skeptical people are drawn into an organization that can really transform their lives, not always for good.”

The Church of Scientology has reacted to the film with full-page advertisements in The New York Times criticizing both the film and its creators, and it also published a “special report” accusing it of lies. The Church has a reputation for silencing criticism, and this history is likely a reason that few major studios or television networks have been willing to publish such a documentary.

Gibney took the criticism well, even thanking the church for the publicity and telling the Times that he merely wished “they put in showtimes.” Max O’Connell, writing for Indiewire, criticized the Church’s reactions as illogical, and said,”their campaign against the film is going to be the best publicity that Alex Gibney and company could ever hope for, if also a hassle for critics and filmmakers and (this is no small thing) a nightmare for the ex-CoS members who dared to speak out against the Church’s practices. But then, they don’t seem terribly aware that attacking everyone who criticizes you doesn’t do a lot of good for your image.”

Aside from the Church, the documentary has been met largely with critical acclaim, earning 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

The documentary is currently available on HBO Go and slated to premiere on Vimeo in September.

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