by Deryn O’Sullivan
The most necessary aspect of Louis Theroux’s inquisitive My Scientology Movie is the reinforcement of documentary film-making as both subjective storytelling vehicle and objective factual record. As the secretive pay-to-play Church of Scientology find out over the course of this film, the camera never lies – whether they’re in front of it or behind it.
My Scientology Movie; dir: John Dower; UK 2017, 99 mins. Our rating: ★★★★/5.
It’s telling that Jo Oppenheimer is an executive producer on My Scientology Movie: it shares a lot in common with his film The Act of Killing, a brilliant documentary about those blindly following orders in the name of an oppressive regime, where soldiers who took part in awful atrocities reenact scenes from their own past to devastating effect.
After Theroux hits a series of brick walls in his attempts to communicate directly with the shadowy Hollywood cult, the same techniques are used in My Scientology Movie to great effect – reified in no small part by the convincing efforts of terrific unheard-of actors and actresses whose roles are overseen by a former member of the Scientology cult. Like most Louis Theroux docs, My Scientology Movie is more concerned with the nuances of human reasoning and personality; in this instance, their relativity to top-heavy authoritative institutions. Actions and histories are referenced, but motivations are questioned in far great detail.
Now, apart from cults being very bad for you – which is almost a sideline by the end of the movie – a familiar truth manifests: if you give a guilty person long enough, they’ll sooner or later reveal their true nature. Both former and current members of the Church of Scientology, when confronted on film with their own actions or words, often imply their own guilt without outright admitting it. This is Louis Theroux’s career calling card: being disarming enough to let others around him be their natural selves, dropping their performative veneers, for better and, often, for worse.
My Scientology Movie acts as an insightful and witty primer into an obfuscated sub-culture, but may not satisfy the most curious, or those looking for new, sensationalist revelations; Theroux often seems as baffled as the rest of us as to what might lie behind the curtain.
Coupled as they are with an incredible, surreal reenactment of alleged cult meetings, a set of increasingly bewildering encounters between Louis and the stooges and agents of the Church of Scientology lead us to some quietly damning observations: not least of all the sinister level of dedication to fanaticism and its spiralling cost to others.