As regular readers of the Multiverse know, Alex Gibney is one of my favourite documentary makers and his latest film Going Clear, broadcast last weekend in the US on HBO, has been the subject of much discussion and controversy. The film is based on Lawrence Wright’s book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief published in January 2013. Given the fact that 1.7 million people tuned in to watch it last weekend (HBO’s biggest documentary premiere in almost a decade) it would appear that interest in Scientology is huge and for many viewers, including me, this is the first time they have been made aware of the abuse, violence, brainwashing and fraud that the church has been involved in.
Gibney interviews eight former Scientologists, some of whom were high ranking members, and many of their experiences are horrifying. They recount how they got into the church, the methods of mind control, brainwashing and isolation that the church utilises, and their reasons for leaving. The ‘auditing’ process is explained in detail, whereby the church learns each member’s weak spots, secrets and vulnerabilities, and uses this information to keep members in line.
Gibney also uses footage of Scientology events (some of which look like the Nazi propaganda rallies) and archival footage of two of Scientology’s most prominent members, Tom Cruise and John Travolta, who are used as recruitment tools and as the public face of the religion. Through recruitment of celebrities and crucially the 1993 designation of Scientology as a recognised religion by the IRS and therefore tax exempt, the church is an incredibly rich organisation having amassed billions of dollars in assets and property.
Many of the ex-members speak of misconduct and abuse by church leaders, especially David Miscavige. It is alleged that Miscavige encourages harassment of journalists and ex-members of the church, has humiliated, intimidated, imprisoned and in some cases physically beaten members, and knowingly exploits vulnerable people. Particularly disturbing are the accounts of ‘The Hole’, a facility where dozens of members are imprisoned and subjected to reindoctrination. What this seems to mean is extreme physical and mental abuse, and hours of interrogation with the aim of getting the members to ‘confess’, i.e. relate criticisms of the religion or of David Miscavige, or confess homosexual tendencies and sexual fantasies. It sounds a bit like a POW camp.
Unlike some previous criticisms of Scientology, this documentary has real weight and therefore the power to affect change. Alex Gibney is an Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker, someone who is highly respected, someone who has built his reputation on thorough research, not some fly-by-night with a video camera and a grudge. In addition the film was produced by HBO who employed over 150 lawyers to review it before broadcast. Although the church, Tom Cruise, John Travolta and others declined to be interviewed and have denied the claims in the documentary through their lawyers, an injunction was not taken out before broadcast leading us to believe that the film is factually correct, truthful and therefore must be taken seriously.
Hopefully Going Clear will be the catalyst for authorities and the media to investigate Scientology further, the start of which should be the IRS reconsidering the tax free status of the church.