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'Going Clear' Documentary Is an Audit of Scientology

The film may become the definitive takedown of the church.

by Whitney Mallett
Mar 12 2015, 1:46pm

Image:  ​Alex Gibney

The goal of auditing in Scientology is to clear the mind of built up emotional stress or trauma. According to Dianetics, one of the religion's founding ideas, the brain is a cellular network with blockages that need to be cleared.

A similar image comes to mind when I think of the obstacles critics of the church have faced over the years: lawsuits, character assassinations, and powerful allies. But a new documentary film Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief by Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney set to premiere on HBO on March 29th looks like it may be able to flush out these blocks, presenting a clear-eyed, compelling look at the religion.

While much of it is astounding—from testimonies of time spent in prison-style rehabilitation from ex-Scientologists, to evidence of blackmail and back-room deals with the IRS—not a lot of information in the Gibney's documentary is actually new. Save for a piece about the church having hacked Nicole Kidman's phone, most of it is in Lawrence Wright's book by the same name that the film adapts. ("That stuff about Nicole Kidman, I was a little envious I hadn't gotten it," admitted Wright at a recent press event at HBO with Gibney and others who worked on the film.)

Even much of the archival footage— leaked​ videos from internal Scientology award show-style celebrations and the original song "We Stan​d Tall" produced for the church in the style of a power ballad celebrity charity sing-a-long—has all been available online for years in the web's dark corners where the church's most easily derided promotional materials circulate alongside alarming tales of abuse and exploitation.

Sylvia "Spanky" Taylor, who was assigned to be actor John Travolta's liaison in the church. Image: HBO

There's a unique power in knitting it all together and distributing it on a premium cable network, but making the documentary likely wouldn't have been possible if the fact that these damning materials are Googlable hadn't already weakened the church's fortresses.

"Everyone in the church talks about how the internet has changed everything," Gibney told reporters at the HBO event. "Back in the day, you could bury a story. There were some devastating stories that have come out over time, but you'd have to go to the stacks of the library to research it. Now it's two clicks."

"Everyone in the church talks about how the internet has changed everything."

Given the ubiquity of these stories, it's maybe a bit surprising that traditional media still fears the church so much. "When we went to license footage from all the major networks, they all declined to license to us for legal reasons," Gibney said. "We put it in anyways by fair use, but I found that really interesting that they felt that opposed to images of Abu Ghraib or other inflammatory material, that this somehow was too perilous to touch."

The church is notorious for being aggressively litigious, and while an anonymous YouTube user doesn't have to worry about those consequences, a major network does. "The church beats its breast and says if you show that material, we are going to sue you," Gibney said.

It is official church policy, as dictated by Scientology's founder and messiah-like figure, the now-deceased L. Ron Hubbard, to respond to critics with such aggression. Hubbard used the term "Fai​r Game" to describe the principle of conducting private investigations, character assassinations, and legal action against the church's media critics.

Before Wright wrote a feature about director  Paul Haggis leavi​ng the church for The New Yorker in 2011, he was wary of getting involved. "In the 1990s, Time had written an expose of Scientology and the church had​ sued, losing every step of the way, but it was the most expensive suit that Time magazine ever in its history defended. I didn't want to put The New Yorker through that," said Wright, adding, "but then along comes Paul Haggis and the story is just too good to leave alone."

And while Wright in the end wasn't or hasn't been sued, he was lampooned in Scientology's Freedom Magazine which caricatur​ed him as The New Yorker's mascot-of-sorts Eustache Tilley, with Paul Haggis caricatured as the maggot coming out of his top hat. (After being handed a copy of the spoof, Wright recalls New Yorker editor David Remnick called to comment on the high-quality of paper stock: "Lawrence, this is handsomely done!")

A still from Going Clear. Image: HBO

The church's litigious and vindictive nature is what has earned it its tax-exempt status too. In the film, Gibney explains how for 25 years, the IRS had branded Scientology a commercial enterprise and not given them the tax exemptions traditionally given to religious organizations.

In the 1990s, Scientology hired lawyers and privat​e investigators to dig up dirt on the IRS and its individual officials, and at one time had more than 50 suits against them, according to the New York Times. Although the IRS claims Scientology's bullying tactics had nothing to do with the decision to grant the church its desired tax exemption, Gibney shows photos of IRS and church executives goofing off together after a conciliatory meeting. Gibney's film shows footage of the church's leader David Miscavige addressing a stadium full of Scientologists in 1993, "The war is over!"

And although Gibney hopes to avoid being sued—HBO has apparently hired something like an already mythologized 160 lawyers to vet his doc and ensure it's airtight with no room for litigation—he hasn't avoided Scientology's other less ominous weapon: character assassination.

Some of Gibney's B-roll, ants included, is offensively unimaginative

The church has already already called him a liar and claimed his late father was a journalist who published CIA propaganda. In their attack, Scientologists have taken out full-page ads in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, and ads attacking Gibney and his film have begun appearing on Twitter. The church also released an online video that takes particular issue with Gibney's visualizing the retelling of scientologists held hostage at a church facility with footage of ants crawling up a wall.

Though I have to agree that some of Gibney's B-roll, ants included, is offensively unimaginative, Scientology's ow​n video is an affront in form and content: it's a piece of propaganda accusing Gibney of propaganda by invoking Nazi propaganda. Most of it is footage from a sparkling Scientology facility, intended to refute Gibney's claims about the church's practice of sending members to "re-education camps."

Although the church's responses seem pretty pathetic, Mike Rinder, an ex-Scientologist and former top church executive who is interviewed in Gibney's film and has his own blog dedicated to stopping church abuses, explained that non-Scientologists aren't the audience for it.

"It's all for the internal public," he said. "Scientologists will be like 'cool yeah the media are a bunch of idiots. They are always getting it wrong.'"

He explains that the church has been running a campaign against the film ever since they knew it was going to be made and couldn't be stopped. "This campaign that the church is running will prevent a percentage, probably a fairly large percentage of out-in-the-world Scientologists from seeing [the film], but it won't prevent all of them," says Rinder. "I'm so happy this is on HBO because I think that a lot of people are going to watch this and I think it will at least give them something to think about."

Although the church is still rich and getting richer (real estate), its membership is already on the decline.

Between 2001 and 2008, the number of self-identified Scientologists dropped from 55,000 to 25,000, according to the America Religious Identification Survey.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is asking the IRS to review the church's tax exemption status as well.

Gibney's documentary, which is already getting mainstream media attention from interviews on CBS to articles in Vanity Fair, has the potential to add momentum to the church's downward spiral. Tony Ortega, a journalist who's been covering Scientology for decades, predicts, "Scientology is going through an internal crisis and it continues to. I think this film will exacerbate that."

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