Wednesday, April 1, 2015

New movie review: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Director Alex Gibney's new documentary Going Clear seeks to expose the lies behind Scientology.

“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.” – Linus in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

I promise not to discuss the Great Pumpkin in this space.

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney is a masterful storyteller and a remarkable investigator who often spins riveting tales about true-life atrocities. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is firmly in the mold of his previous films such as the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It is a frightening and infuriating film, one from which you will not be able to turn away.

I am a great admirer of Gibney’s craft, and as a journalist, his research is impeccable. Going Clear had its worldwide debut less than 72 hours ago on HBO – though its premier was at the Sundance Film Festival in January – and the Church of Scientology has already tried to steal the headlines with its refutation of the facts presented in the film. The organization has started numerous websites and created countless satellite Twitter accounts all to mitigate the damage it believes this film will do to it. For a group that already has severe public relations problems, it is hard to blame the Church of Scientology for this reaction.

The film centers on two questions, one a matter of fact and the other a matter of interpretation. First, did the Church of Scientology use mental and physical abuse to control and contain its members? It will say it did not, though no current leaders or members of the Church of Scientology agreed to be interviewed for the film. The former members, including Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash) and actor Jason Beghe (Chicago P.D. and X-Men: First Class), say mental and physical abuse was not only routine but a matter of policy.

It comes down to agenda. The Church of Scientology will do anything in its immense power to protect its business, while the filmmakers and interview subjects want to expose the organization as a massive, dangerous fraud. As the people whom Gibney interviews, including several former high-ranking members of the group, do not stand to benefit from knowingly making themselves the targets of a public smear campaign, I am inclined to believe their version of events.

So, if we accept as fact that the Church of Scientology engaged in a top-down program of systematic abuse, what do we do with that information? Similar charges and worse have been brought against the Catholic Church, and the results have been more or less the same. The accused organization denies any wrongdoing, suggests its accusers are lying or unreliable, and pays out an undisclosed settlement to bury its problems in money.

Ah, yes, the money. This brings us to the second question: Is the Church of Scientology a religion, and if so, does it deserve tax-exempt status from the government? For now, the IRS recognizes the Church of Scientology – which is worth billions of dollars – as a religion, and it does not owe taxes to the federal government.

Leaving aside how the organization achieved this status, which Gibney dissects at length in the film, the larger issue is whether something like the Church of Scientology constitutes a religion. One of the interview subjects says that part of the problem is putting that decision in the hands of the IRS. He says they are accountants and lawyers, not theologians, which is true to an extent, but when it comes to discussing far-out beliefs and perceived cults, don’t we all become amateur theologians?

Much is made publicly and in the film of the Church of Scientology’s beliefs, which include distant planets, ancient souls, and space aliens. If it sounds like an organization started by a science-fiction writer, that is because founder L. Ron Hubbard was in fact a science-fiction writer. However, I refuse to participate in a discussion in which these facts are used as the basis for dismissing the possibility of Scientology as a religion.

The Church of Scientology may be the new kid on the block, but I fail to see its beliefs in past lives and space pods as more ludicrous than a burning bush, reincarnation, or the parting of the Red Sea. It is too easy, particularly in a Christian-Protestant-centric nation such as the U.S., to look down on belief systems we find strange or out of touch. It is much safer to hold others up for scrutiny than to engage in serious, meaningful self-reflection.

Are the Church of Scientology’s abuses horrid? Yes, unforgivably so, but they are on par with the Catholic Church’s history of sexual abuse and basically every major religion’s shameful treatment of women. Does the organization deserve tax-exempt status? Absolutely not, and neither does any religion in a nation that values the separation of church and state.

Going Clear works as a stunning exposé of a corrupt organization run by an out-of-control power structure. The unfortunate circumstance is the people most in need of this information will never see it – those inside Scientology. For those of us outside the organization, there is nothing in the film not available to those curious enough to seek it out. Gibney’s film may shock you in its compilation of the details, but that is not its primary value. At its best, Going Clear will engage you with questions about the nature of belief systems and what happens when you realize your system is a fraud.

See it? Yes.

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