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In his first full-length documentary feature, veteran of the weird, wonderful and often controversial, Louis Theroux, takes on the infamous Church of Scientology in My Scientology Movie. With general opinions of Scientology shaped predominantly by negative publicity, Louis claims his aim in this film is to try and unearth a positive side to the much-maligned organisation. However, this intention is thwarted straight away; there are no official spokespeople for the Church, and no members willing to publicly speak about the benefits of Scientology...
With this blockade, Louis is forced to compromise on the issue of access, and decides his way around the problem will be to reconstruct a version of the truth using prominent ex-Scientology enforcer Marty Rathbun's testimony. Together, they audition actors to stand in for key figures within the church, using scripts based on Marty's memory of events. However, it's not long before their activities are confronted by church members who are keen to denounce Marty in ways that become increasingly aggressive. The viewer is put in the uncomfortable position of being concerned - not only about the safety of Louis and Marty - but also for the actors involved in these reconstructions.
In the film, Louis' and Marty's activities add a farcical edge to the already somewhat surreal proceedings. The footage of harassment by the church's members is genuinely disturbing, and something Marty claims to be a regular occurrence.
This level of persecution is reminiscent of Tickled, a documentary with the aim of getting under the skin of internet ‘competitive endurance tickling contests', which resulted in an unexpected ordeal for the directors, involving legal threats and personal attacks. Rather than giving in to intimidation, Tickled filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeve ended up discovering a much more complex story when they decided to unmask the person that was so fiercely attempting to prevent their initially light-hearted investigation.
The struggle for access is not a new theme in documentary; the person who holds the ‘smoking gun' is often the most difficult to get on camera to tell their side of the story. Documentarian Nick Broomfield employed the tactic of ‘doorstepping' his subjects unawares to try and elicit a response from them when chasing South African white supremacist Eugene Terre ‘Blanche in The Leader, The Driver and the Driver's Wife, and with his persistent questioning of musician Courtney Love in Kurt and Courtney.
During My Scientology Movie, the very frustration of being denied access forms another dimension to the story, adding questions about why the reporter is being held at arm's length. This also provides insights through who is willing to speak and lend their impressions.
Louis' approach is somewhat different to Broomfield's, and as ever, his personality is key. Using his disarming charm and deceptively naïve curiosity, Louis often succeeds in getting his subjects to make revelations that perhaps a more confrontational approach would not yield. His even, almost disinterested tone gives the subject space to speak more openly than perhaps they might have intended. However, in the film, even Louis cannot work his charm on the grand prize (leader of Scientology, David Miscavige) or any of his confidants, and is instead paired with Marty Rathbun, who has for many years been an outspoken opponent of Scientology, lending his testimony to various exposés on the subject.
The dynamics between Marty and Louis give the viewer plenty of questions; how much of what Marty is saying can be believed? And how far does Louis dare to probe him about his past complicity in some of the darker claims towards Scientology?
Another documentary filmmaker who has not shied away from using his personality as a tool for leverage with his subjects is Michael Moore. Moore has tackled many difficult subjects, using his own brand of humour to confront and problematise issues in American culture that seem to have become normalised, in films such as Sicko, Bowling for Columbine, and Capitalism: A Love Story.
While Louis' approach to the sticky subject of Scientology may not serve his subjects up for criticism in the same way that Michael Moore's humorous treatments do, his disarmingly level-headed approach definitely evokes a telling reaction.
What makes Scientology a fascinating topic for many a filmmaker is that it is both a huge presence in the world - with influential members such as actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta - and yet extremely difficult to interpret. As Louis ponders regularly in his film: 'how is it possible that this powerful and aggressively secretive organisation is in fact considered an institution of faith?' With no representative of Scientology willing to respond, the question remains unanswered.