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‘Going Clear’ And The Future Of Scientology

Kevin Tsukii |
April 8, 2015 | 6:31 p.m. PDT


One of Scientology's many real estate properties. (Twitter/@THR)
One of Scientology's many real estate properties. (Twitter/@THR)
Released earlier this week, "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," is HBO’s most watched documentary in almost ten years. It’s also the most devastating public relations nightmare the Church of Scientology could have ever imagined: an estimated 1.7 million viewers in seven days participated in the dismantling of Scientology.

The documentary delves into the world of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Affectionately called “LRH”, Hubbard was one of the most published science-fiction authors whose twisted mind mirrored the manipulative and powerful ascension of the cult of Scientology.

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Although the film relies heavily on found footage and interviews that at times can be tiresome, the content is so disturbing that it paints an enchanting portrait of how systems of power are able to manipulate people through the promise of acceptance and the threat of rejection.

Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and screenwriter Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, the film version is able to exploit the visual fanfare of Scientology rituals: extravagant productions that echo Nazi pomp. Gibney’s documentary follows the book, but is able to put a human face on the members of the cult. Rather than read someone’s words about how they became mentally ill because of the demands of the church, the film lets you see a mother on the verge of tears as she explains how she was labeled a “Suppressive Person” and is deemed toxic by her own daughter.

The film tries to have some restraint and objectivity in presenting accounts. However, even the straightforward stories — like the one told by Hubbard’s wife about the time he kidnapped their daughter to Cuba and threatened to cut her up and dump her in river — are so shocking that when juxtaposed with John Travolta’s testimony that no other religion in the world is about peace and love, one can’t help but feel an overwhelming frustration.

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Viewers, jaws-dropped, are constantly asking themselves: “How could anyone believe this?”

How exactly does one come to believe that 75 million years ago an alien galactic ruler named Xenu was in charge of all the planets in this galaxy? Or that Earth was once called “Teegeeack?” 

It’s frustrated questions like this that Gibney answers throughout the film by revealing how the cult was able to charade itself as a religion; hire lawyers to bully the IRS for recognition as a legitimate religious organization exempt from taxation; create an organized system of blackmail; and tap into the influential power of Hollywood to simultaneously recruit others and maintain the facade of legitimacy. Those are the circumstances in which belief is fostered. The ex-Scientologies in the documentary are framed as fromer prisoners. The documentary doesn't portray them not as unintelligent, but as vulnerable people who were taken advantage of.

READ MORE: Film Review: 'Hunting Ground'

The final question raised by the documentary is: “How does a cult survive in a world where information is at our fingertips?” Scientologists may have been able to turn a blind eye to a Wright’s bestselling novel, but how will they ignore or respond to this documentary? How will they survive the ensuing conversation and discussion in the hundreds of articles that have erupted from it. 

The church is still struggling to contain the damage, launching campaigns against all involved in the production. Propaganda sites like this one attacking the director of the film, Academy Award winning documentarian, Alex Gibney have begun to pop up on the web.

One thing is for certain, if they’re going to take on this documentary, streaming on-demand via HBO GO and playing in select theaters now, they’re going to have to do much better than childish and obvert propaganda which only reinforces their image as a menacing cult.

Reach Contributor Kevin Tsukii here.



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