Director Alex Gibney had no less than three documentaries at the 2015 Sydney Film Festival, including James Brown: Mr Dynamite and Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine, but it is his exploration of Scientology in Going Clear: The Prison of Belief that had everyone talking.
“I was offered the subject several times and kept turning it down,” said Gibney in conversation with filmmaker Rachel Landers at Sydney’s Town Hall. “It wasn’t till I read Lawrence Wright’s book (Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief) and was struck by the notion of the ‘prison of belief’ where people can be so caught up in a belief that even when the prison bars open you are still held by them, and you can end up doing or condoning terrible things that you never would have thought possible.”
“What makes a good documentary is the same thing that makes a good feature film,” Festival director Nashen Moodley told FilmInk when discussing the selection of Going Clear in the festival program. “It should be really engaging, it should touch you emotionally, touch you intellectually as well. If it’s seeing something in a new way and speaking about the world in a way that makes you challenge your preconceptions, then that usually makes for a good documentary.
“Alex Gibney is a really important documentary filmmaker and in each festival, we tend to have an Alex Gibney film,” Moodley continues. “Going Clear is a really remarkable film and an example of powerful investigative journalism and documentary filmmaking.”
Gibney, who in person comes across as intelligent, thoughtful, precise and considered in his communication, oversees a team of researchers and editors to achieve his prolific output of documentaries on a breadth of topics. He won Oscars for his investigations on abuse in the Catholic Church (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, 2012) and the US military (Taxi to the Dark Side, 2007), and has explored Wikileaks (We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) and the Enron Corporation (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room).
It is inevitable that Gibney would come under attack by the Church of Scientology, who are notoriously litigious. In 1993, the Church bombarded the Internal Revenue Service with 2400 lawsuits to gain a church tax exemption, protecting millions of dollars of revenue from their property investments. There is a celebratory scene in the documentary that shows leader David Miscavige declaring ‘the war is over’ to a packed crowd in LA after the ruling was announced.
“I have been harassed,” Gibney told the audience at the Town Hall. “Just prior to the release of the film in the States, the Church took out two full page ads in the New York and LA Times and there’s a picture of me, a good picture actually, vilifying me and the film. There’s a massive website presence on which they made videos and little documentaries in which they attack me and everybody else in the film and there’s been ongoing Twitter, Google and even email.
“There’s just a constant barrage of vitriol but I should say that for me it hasn’t been nearly as bad as for the people in the film,” he continues. “And since the film has come out, they have been subjected to intimidation by private investigators trailing them constantly, physical threats by email or in the mail, one woman threatened with the loss of her home. There’s a sense of psychological intimidation which you see in the film, it’s been quite prevalent.”
The day before, on the red carpet, Gibney had mentioned, “The Church also did everything they could to stop the film coming to Australia, mainly in a campaign of cards and letters to the sponsors.”
Scientology has existed in Australia since the 1950s and is the regional headquarters for the Asia Pacific area. According to the Census, membership has declined in recent years to somewhere around 2000 though the Church claims that the numbers are far greater. In 2014, Sydney’s main office in Castlereagh Street was refurbished and the Church bought land in West Chatswood for a proposed new organisational base.
The founder of Scientology is L Ron Hubbard. In Going Clear, Gibney draws from a mass of archival material, including filmed interviews with Mr. Hubbard, from his early years as a prolific writer of science fiction novels to his development of a pseudo-scientific ‘auditing’ process that claims to clear negative emotions. Since Hubbard’s death in 1986 the church has been led by Hubbard’s protégée David Miscavige, who has a particularly close relationship with Tom Cruise, one of the celebrity members who are vital in maintaining Scientology’s high public profile.
Hubbard and Miscavige are the latest in Gibney’s pantheon of charismatic men who, for good or ill, achieve massive power and success. The list includes Julian Assange, Steve Jobs, Henry Kissinger, James Brown, Lance Armstrong and many more.
FilmInk asked the director if he had observed any common traits among these subjects. “Very often there’s a kind of single-minded quality to them,” Gibney observed. “A kind of winner takes all quality, ruthlessness and an ability, which is sometimes useful and sometimes very dangerous, to shut everything out except your single-minded mission.”
Gibney told the Town Hall audience about his interest in abuse of power, when people cross the line and begin to rationalise actions that mark the beginning of an ethical slippery slope. Though themes of power and corruption run through much of Gibney’s work, each of his films is stylistically unique. It’s here that his capacity to blend feature film method with documentary purpose comes to the fore.
His skill is in developing a narrative style to serve the story of each specific subject. He is also adept at holding a strong overview while being adaptable to his material. “I try to frame the narrative at the beginning of the research process,” he tells FilmInk. “But I always end up changing along the way and I think that’s a good thing. But framing up at the beginning at least allows me a point of entry and sense of focus so I don’t become utterly lost. I think having an idea of where I might go but being willing to adjust at every step has proved useful.”
Going Clear employs the framework of interviews with eight disaffected ex-members, many of whom had reached high positions in Scientology hierarchy. Each spoke of having entered the Church at a time in their life when they were lost or searching for spiritual meaning or self-improvement. The church offered a sense of belonging, certainty of answers to life’s difficult questions, community and structure.
Gibney points out that these examples are interchangeable in any religious or political faith and that he is interested in why humans are susceptible to being drawn in to belief systems that then may become a prison if instincts of common sense, rationality and morality are left behind.
One ex-Scientologist interviewee was Marty Rathbun whose last big job for the church was to aggressively hound a Guardian journalist who was trying to research a documentary. Another was a woman, Spanky Taylor, who had been good friends with John Travolta and says she left when she saw the ill health and mistreatment of her infant daughter.
The documentary covers a wide scope of the history and organisation of the church, including the ‘Sea Org’ elite group of Hubbard’s young disciples (allegedly paid sometimes as little as forty cents an hour) and a frankly horrifying account of the Rehabilitation Project Force, a prison for errant members.
Lacking input from celebrity Scientologists, an unfortunate weakness in the documentary, the film includes well-known footage of Tom Cruise on TV and YouTube, reports by ex-members of Miscavige’s ‘fixing’ Cruise’s relationships with Nicole Kidman and later partners, and footage of an ingenuous Travolta praising the church for its positive impact on his life.
Gibney described how filming the eight interviewees was conducted ‘under the radar’ to protect the subjects. After that he invited key figures in the Church, including Miscavige, Cruise and Travolta, to participate. Requests were refused. Though other church members were put forward instead, Gibney chose not to take up the offer of what he considered a public relations exercise.
The documentary is faithful to the book by Wright who won a Pulitzer prize for The Looming Tower about events leading to 9/11. Wright appears in Going Clear as another interviewee. His tone, reflecting the tone of the book is open and questioning. The film takes a more directly critical approach.
Gibney says he regards it as important to be empathetic in interviews but more ruthless in editing. “It’s good to have an open mind,” Gibney tells the audience at the Town Hall. “But not so open that your brains fall out.”
In the same conversation, Gibney spoke of acting towards subjects with fairness and refused to be drawn on judgements about which churches are the ‘most evil.’ “I’m kind of a believer in the John Lennon dictum, ‘whatever gets you through the night.’
“Talking about Scientology and other religions, it’s not the creed, it’s the deed. A lot of people find comfort in religion and I know from my own tradition, I know nuns who do powerfully good work with the poor and yet the Catholic Church for example did a lot to cover up the rape of many children for many years, so I think it’s really separating that idea and not confusing the end with the means.
“I think that what’s most important here,” he continues, “is if you want to believe in Xena the galactic overlord (a central figure in Scientology mythology), I don’t care, but if you start forcing people to disconnect from their families and forcing children to sign billion year contracts and enslaving them by paying them forty cents an hour, I do care, because that’s, for me, a violation of civil rights.”