By Ashley Lee
Though most of the public automatically associates Scientology with its big-name supporters like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, the filmmakers of the documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief say that some in the church do otherwise.
"Sea Org [a wing of the church] members in particular think of celebrities as useless — they don’t have a lot of respect for them," said journalist Tony Ortega, who is interviewed in the doc, at a press luncheon on Wednesday at HBO’s New York headquarters. "In fact, when Cruise got that medal and [church leader David] Miscavige stood up and called him ‘the best Scientologist I know,’ I’ve talked to several former Sea Org members that were in that audience that night who said it was like a slap in the face. Because these people work 17 hours a day, they completely give up any relationship with outside family — they are hard-core. And they think of the celebrities as ornaments. They don’t take them very seriously. So when Miscavige started taking celebrities more seriously, that was actually controversial inside the church."
Director Alex Gibney clarified the film’s intention of zooming in on the organization’s Hollywood supporters, who have made the public pay more attention to Scientology altogether. “One of the reasons we’re trying to turn the spotlight on them is not to victimize them, but to really say, ‘You have a responsibility. You’re given an enormous amount of wealth as a movie star, and with that comes a certain amount of responsibility, particularly when people are joining an organization because of you. And I think if the popular opinion begins to swing in that way, I think you could see a change with them.”
Gibney told reporters that, like his other docs We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, he was again interested in the idea of “noble cause corruption,” coupled with Going Clear author Lawrence Wright’s empathetic take on the topic. “When people are convinced of the nobility of a belief system, they can do the most appalling things,” he said. “But the people [interviewed] weren’t victims, they found a way to speak out and fight back.”
One of Gibney’s struggles in making the film about the religious organization created by L. Ron Hubbard was that “when we went to license footage from all the major networks, they all declined to license to us for legal reasons. Now, we put it in anyway via fair use, but I found that really interesting. That means that they felt, as opposed to images about Abu Ghraib or other inflammatory material, this somehow was too perilous to touch. That’s because the church beats its breast and goes, ‘If you show that material, we’re gonna sue.’” Still, several notable media interviews were left on the cutting-room floor to include more footage of Miscavige speaking directly to the congregation.
The doc also highlights how, of the three levels of church membership — Public, Staff and Sea Organization — the latter is the most difficult to leave. “No child should be allowed to sign away his life like that, throw away his education and be impoverished by his service, and then, at some point later in life, … decide, ‘I made a mistake,’” noted Wright. “By that time, you have no job résumé, no education, you’re poor, if you go through the regular channels and say, ‘I want to leave,’ they’ll give you a freeloader tab for all the services they provided you while you were working for fifty dollars a week, year after year, and it mounts up into hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s why you see so many people escaping…. There are a lot of people whose lives have just been shattered, and they live in the shadows.
"There were other people who escaped and were dragged back," he added. "In one case, Marty [Rathbun] went to fetch this one woman, and they send John Travolta’s plane to pick her up and be put into this re-education camp. And one guy, they knew he was a baseball fan — they caught him in the parking lot at the Giants’ stadium and took him back. It’s not easy for people to leave that organization."
Former church spokesman Mike Rinder, also interviewed in the doc, told reporters that the goal is not to take down Scientology for good — many of its fundamental beliefs are appealing, he admitted, and “if it were just really all bullshit and all abuse, then people like Paul Haggis wouldn’t stick around for 35 years” — but to end its dangerous practices. “I hope it will change how much coverage there is about what really goes on in Scientology,” he explained, adding that he knows at least some current supporters will watch.
"I think it will at least give them something to think about — they have been told, in a campaign that the church has been running since they knew this film was gonna go forward and they were unable to stop it, that everybody involved in this film is a liar," he noted. "This campaign will prevent a fairly large percentage of the out-in-the-world Scientologists from seeing it, but it won’t prevent all of them."
What’s at the root of the problem? Miscavige, said Rinder. “He takes a lot of things that might otherwise be innocuous or might otherwise be, in the hands of someone else, there’d be no problem at all, and uses those as tools or weapons to abuse people with.”
However, Ortega noted, “I think the problem Hubbard got into is, if you read Dianetics, it makes the promise that it should only take 20 hours to become clear, and once you become clear, you’ll be impervious to illness, you’ll have perfect recall, basically you’ll become superhuman. People bought this book like crazy in the summer of 1950, he realized it was a gold mine and … he ran into this problem where people would do all the steps and not become superhumans. So he’d add another level and another level. I think it kind of got away from him at a certain point, and he needed to keep people on that hamster wheel.
"From the beginning, you have this constant: How you keep people happy if they never attain what you promised them to begin with? How do you keep them from breaking away?" he continued. "And he was always paranoid about outside influences, so by the mid-’60s, I personally believe all of the toxic stuff that’s still harming Scientology today was in place: disconnection, fair game, ethics, security checking, security checking of children. … There are people who come out today who want to blame everything on David Miscavige and they still like L. Ron Hubbard, but Hubbard baked all this stuff in early on."
As for what’s next, “Public opinion will have an effect on the government doing something or not,” Ortega predicted. “Scientology is also going through an internal crisis, and it continues to, and I think this film will exacerbate that as well. I have my own personal theory: I think the IRS is biding its time till when it sees the church is weak enough, and it’s gonna step in and do something. I think there are people at the IRS that are embarrassed by what happened in the ’90s [when the IRS granted the church tax-exempt status after years of court battles].”
The Church of Scientology sent THR a statement regarding Going Clear:
This bigoted propaganda by Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright is built on hoods invented by admitted liars. All remain bitter after having been removed in disgrace and expelled more than a decade ago from the Church, after they secretly conspired to suborn perjury and destroy evidence. They cannot be trusted, and no statements they make can be believed.
Mr. Gibney refused to answer over a dozen letters from the Church asking for an opportunity to address any allegations; he never even sent one fact to check and he shunned 25 people who traveled to New York to meet with him with relevant answers to every single allegation that is in the film. These individuals included the children, former spouses, superiors and colleagues who worked for years alongside his sources.
Because Mr. Gibney has remained anything but objective, the Church has compiled the unvarnished truth in the form of video footage, court documents, publicly available records and testimonials by pertinent individuals and parishioners worldwide who do represent Scientology, and were intentionally ignored by Mr. Gibney and HBO. See http://www.freedommag.org/hbo/
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief hits limited theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on March 13, and premieres March 29 on HBO.
Mar. 4, 7:30 p.m. Updated with statement from the Church of Scientology.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute