Culture

HBO’s Scientology Documentary Uses The Church’s Own Tricks On Viewers

CREDIT: Courtesy of HBO

Scientologists use an "e-meter" to interpret electrical pulses through a person's body while an "auditor" asks probing personal questions. Believers claim that the results of the auditing sessions facilitate a religious catharsis, but a new HBO documentary suggests the sessions are more useful for building a thorough blackmail file that can be used to manipulate adherents in the future.

It has been mocked repeatedly and accused of a variety of abusive practices toward its members over the years, but Scientology’s ability to attract devoted, decades-long followers has never quite made sense in previous depictions of the organization. Now, the source of that mysterious power to attract sensible people and retain them for a lifetime is laid plain — and for a lot less than the suggested donation at an entry-level Scientologists’ meeting. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief debuts March 29 on HBO.

It is no small thing to take on the Church of Scientology, as Anderson Cooper, the Internal Revenue Service, the creators of South Park, and many others have learned over the years. So when HBO decided to engage the esoteric, cult-like group in a documentary, the network didn’t skimp. Going Clear is the product of a collaboration between lauded, veteran documentarian Alex Gibney and lauded, veteran investigative reporter Lawrence Wright, who wrote the book that Gibney’s film is derived from and appears in on-camera interviews.

Crash director Paul Haggis is in many ways the lynchpin of the movie, although Wright has told his story before in print. When the director joined up, his love life was driving him to distraction and his filmmaking ambitions were still unrealized. It’s fascinating to hear him explain his own credulity at the very start of his time with the group, after decades of dedicated membership and hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal contributions to Scientology, and Haggis helps humanize a psychological process that is likely baffling to outsiders.

“The thing that absolutely got me and stayed with me forever,” Haggis says, “was the very first thing I read when you open the course pack, and it said, paraphrasing, ‘Don’t believe any of this. If it works for you, great. If it doesn’t, discard it.’ I was troubled by the fact they called it a religion, but I figured, oh, it’s some tax scam, that’s fine with me, I don’t really care about that as long as it works.”

And what is the it there, the thing that worked so well for Haggis and tens of thousands of other intelligent, successful, and driven people? Part of what makes Going Clear such fun to watch is that it both explains and demonstrates the specific appeal of the core Scientology practice of “auditing.”

The person being audited holds onto two metal tubes connected to a device called an e-meter — “it’s one-third of a lie detector,” Wright explains — that has a little needle that fidgets and jumps across a gauge of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s own design. A Scientologist who has been trained as an “auditor” asks probing questions and forces the subject to discuss and dwell upon difficult memories and traumatic or shameful thoughts as a way of reducing their power to interfere with the speaker’s happiness. It’s a lot like what a therapist does. Or a priest. Or a documentary filmmaker. But what an auditor does with that information is very, very different.

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CREDIT: Courtesy of HBO

When Hubbard’s odd combination of science-fiction zaniness with proven human practices like confession and meditation and talk therapy inevitably starts to grow less effective, practitioners learn that their auditors have kept meticulous notes on all those dark secrets. The practice that helped members clear their heads ends up providing the personal leverage that the church’s dirty-tricks outfit will use to keep them from getting clear of the organization without serious risk to their reputation and lifestyle.

The alleged blackmail and harassment are sexy, but Gibney and Wright are more interested in the subtler, self-tied bonds that keep Scientologists from fleeing when things get weird. The ex-members interviewed share certain personal traits — ambition but not confidence, high intelligence but low formal education — that make for good zealots. Abandoning zealotry means acknowledging foolishness, and the combination of pride, community, and basic existential thirst is more than enough to keep most members in line without Scientology’s leaders having to turn to darker tactics.

If that were all Going Clear had to offer, it might not be much of a movie. But it is exceedingly well-crafted not just as a journey into a dark and strange psychological experience, but as a piece of documentary history and story-telling. Gibney’s filmmaking choices draw thematic links between specific eras in American mass culture and the evolution of Scientology over that same historical timeframe. As the group grows from raw amateur-psychology practices into a secretive, vindictive, and insular global real estate empire, Gibney uses archival footage and music to link each little epoch of the organization to an equivalent collective memory for American viewers.

To show how Hubbard and his hodgepodge of psychological and religious practices moved from the listless post-war years into the radical spirituality and mind-expansion of the 1970s, Gibney throws period-appropriate hippie-freak-out footage at you, and underscores it with Kenny Rogers & the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” As Lawrence Wright puts it in the movie, Scientology “was selling itself as ‘get high without drugs’” in that era of seekers and chakras. But the group grew up and buckled down in the following decades, Gibney and Wright show, in order to mount an extreme defense of the huge sums of money that it was bringing in for church leaders.

As the story moves into the avaricious, ambitious 1980s, Gibney re-sets the tone of the film using clips from Scientology-produced media stuffed with blocky fonts and cheesy 8-bit animated effects. It’s the church’s Yo! MTV Raps era visually speaking, but thematically it has more in common with Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The fight for tax-exempt status from U.S. tax authorities dominates this span of Going Clear. The film’s factual revelations about how Scientology declared and conducted a war against the IRS are astounding. Today, Scientology controls billions of dollars worth of prime real estate in cities around the globe and pays no taxes on the donations that come in from its withering group of active members.

When Going Clear turns its focus to current leader David Miscavige’s ruthless consolidation of power through a mixture of re-education camps and (alleged) blackmail in the decades after Hubbard’s death, the details and footage Gibney picks suggest parallels to the CIA black sites, domestic surveillance, and the bleak modernist paranoia of the post-9/11 era. A manic, nonsensical excerpt from a 1997 Miscavige speech introduces him to the viewer: “Well thank you very much, and welcome to our whole new world. It’s a world where the operative phrase reads: ‘exceeding all expectations, transcending all parameters, extending the boundaries beyond any boundary, not to mention godspeed, lightning speed, and a quantum leap in sheer rapidity of progress up The Bridge!'”

The quote may read as funny in print, but combined with the look on his face and the earnestness of his delivery, the effect is bone-chilling. The real stars of the documentary are non-famous ex-members who rose to senior positions, including a longtime public spokesman and multiple executive officers in the church who relay stories about both scandalous Scientology maneuvers they aided in in the good old days, and nasty stories of Miscavige’s retribution against them both before and after they quit.

Going Clear is the latest example of Gibney addressing large, threatening institutions in unremittingly critical films. The storytelling techniques on display here will be familiar for anyone who has seen his previous films on subjects like sex abuse within the Catholic church and the violent overreaches of the American national security apparatus.

Gibney finds a strong visual motif in the material technology that Scientologists use when undergoing an auditing session. An animated version of the e-meter’s distinctive scale and labels comes up to introduce new interviewees, and when he needs to fill time visually he often uses oblique-angled shots of a swinging, bouncing e-meter needle shot in extreme close-up. Any time Gibney needs to introduce a bit of Scientologist jargon, he uses a close shot of a typewriter banging out the term — a callback to Hubbard’s obsessive and prolific writing of science fiction stories for magazines prior to hitting on Scientology as a money-maker. Early on, in key interviews with less-familiar faces like longtime John Travolta handler Spanky Taylor and actor Jason Beghe, the director leaves his own voice in the audio track of Going Clear. His pointed questions to draw subjects out provides an echo of the auditing technique Scientologists themselves use.

The result is an easily digestible, engrossing, and vastly illuminating two-hour ride through one of America’s strangest contributions to global culture. If that’s not enough to make you want to see it, consider how badly Scientology wants you to skip it.