“They were breaking into offices, framing people. This is the activities of a church?”
Why do people believe what they believe? What compels people forward, deeper into ideas and concepts, and with conviction more perverse the more difficult those ideas and concepts become to believe? What do people perceive as threats to or attacks on their beliefs, and why? How far are people willing to go to defend those beliefs?
“If we can just believe something, then we don’t really have to think for ourselves, do we?” (Paul Haggis, former member)
Perhaps more astounding than the tenets within Scientology itself (and the accounts director Alex Gibney manages to collect in his film are as out there as any you’ve probably heard), perhaps even more astounding than the lengths adherents will go to to “defend” their beliefs (and the cognitive dissonance, the psychology battery, the gaslighting and self-indoctrination, are all truly, disturbingly extreme), is the tale of how even founder L. Rob Hubbard went from admitted tax-dodging schemer to self-indoctrinator – and the lengths to which he subsequently went to remain convinced of his own ideas.
The moments in which its interview subjects are discussing the most esoteric aspects of Scientology, are the moments as a viewing experience in which Going Clear transcends the merely merely voyeuristic and lurid to the intimately unsettling: the behaviours, the feelings, the humanity, in these moments, are the most universal, the most base, the most vulnerable, the most… everyone. Anyone. Me. You.
The truly shocking reveal: when talking most specifically about Scientology, Going Clear speaks most universally about humanity. Its followers are just people, and their needs are simply ours.
Of course, there is sensationalism aplenty to be found in Going Clear as well. Sound bytes, from interview subjects and archival footage alike, characterise the church as “A dangerous and deeply paranoid organisation”, a “group that had created the largest domestic espionage operation in the history of the United States”, and its treatment of its “attackers” and “enemies” as “fair game” for often illegal pre-emptive strikes – behaviours and tactics not dissimilar to some of the largest, and most powerful, organised religions in the world. It’s the lengths people will go to to defend their beliefs, out of fear of what they’d have to face if suddenly stripped of them, that is what Going Clear is really about.
Because it’s seen by its adherents as “the salvation for mankind, you can have people that lie with a very straight face if they believe that what they are doing is protecting the church” (Mike Rinder, former spokesperson). Sound familiar?
Of course, there’s the big question Going Clear raises: what, and who, are we to believe? During each interview with an ex-member of the Church of Scientology, director Gibney and editor Andy Grieve insert footage of the interviewee back in their church days, a completely different person. The result: each segment cross-cuts between someone speaking just as passionately when denouncing the church and their actions within it, as they did in support of the church while members of it. The church’s most famous members are Hollywood A-list actors (one of this documentary’s featured interview subjects, Jason Beghe, is a working Hollywood actor); Going Clear ultimately makes you acutely aware that each and every person involved in the church is, at one point or another (or at all times), playing a role, referring to a script, acting. Even the “documentary”, which purports to separate truth from lie, features dramatised scenes, indulges dramaturgic strategies, creates impressionistic versions of uncorroborated stories. It’s hypnotic, perhaps ironically, maybe even hypocritically so – and we want to believe the secret truth being revealed to us.
Regardless of how you may feel about Scientology specifically, or how fascinating or incredulous you find the testimonials and the increasingly outlandish accounts, what emerges as truly outrageous about the picture of Scientology painted in Going Clear is that it is, in many ways, no more ludicrous a belief system, and no more Machiavellian in its internal machinations, than any other major religion, ideology, institution or ism to which people subscribe, everywhere, every day, is capable of evincing. At first, it seems impossible to believe that these people believe what they do, the way they do, until it doesn’t seem all that impossible at all – and the higher into the belief structure Going Clear ascends, the less alien the entire concept ultimately feels. That is what is truly shocking, lurid, and perversely entertaining here.
Years prior, South Park famously summarised the mythology at the core of Scientology – and the same story is recounted by several of the former members of the church interviewed in Going Clear – so, yeah: “THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIVE”…