Having already stirred up a hornet’s nest after its premiere last January at the Sundance Film Festival and a brief theatrical run, Oscar winner Alex Gibney’s new documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is about to take the sins of Scientology and turn them into Sunday-night appointment viewing. Debuting on HBO on March 29th, the documentarian’s adaptation of Pulitzer winner Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book systematically makes its case against the religion. Delving into accusations of emotional and physical abuse perpetrated by its founder L. Ron Hubbard and Chairman of the Board David Miscavige, as well as the organization’s harassment of critics and alleged dirty-ops blackmailing of celebrities, Going Clear assembles its argument from interviews with former members and hard-to-obtain documents and footage from within the Church itself. It’s everything you didn’t see in Scientology’s Super Bowl ads.
But for all of the damning indictments you’d expect from Gibney’s takedown of the controversial faith, the film has at least one surprising side effect: You’ll never hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” the same way again. Queen’s opera-rock masterpiece provides the soundtrack for a stranger-than-fiction scene at the documentary’s center: a mandatory game of musical chairs staged by Miscavige, for inmates of a “re-education camp” for disgraced Church officials called “The Hole.” The last person sitting, the leader says, can stay. The losers face exile.
“This went on for hours,” says Wright, who helped produce the film and appears as a talking head. “Fights broke out. Chairs were broken. Clothes were torn. But what’s so difficult to understand is that these people were fighting to stay. Some of them had been in the Hole for years. That’s the prison of belief.”
It’s a tough prison to break into. In his award-winning films Mea Maxima Culpa, which examined child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and Taxi to the Dark Side, which explored the use of torture by American military and intelligence services, Gibney has taken on some pretty big targets. But despite going through the usual legal precautions — at the Sundance premiere, the director said that everyone had definitely “lawyered up” in anticipation of a counterattack — he says he’s never been the victim of as much blowback as he’s received over Going Clear. The organization took out a full-page ad in the New York Times denouncing the filmmaker as a fraud; an eight-minute YouTube video entitled “Alex Gibney: HBO’s Propagandist” mysteriously started making the rounds a month ago. The amount of vitriolic letters he’s received (“They’re handwritten, so it has the appearance of a spontaneous reaction…but the language is so similar”) has been staggering.
There are a number of high-profile celebrities I talked to who don’t feel they can come clean, because of people they are close to who are in. It’s a huge impediment.
“The response from Scientology has been much more organized and much more brutal,” says the director, who adds that several of the former Church members interviewed in the movie have caught it worse than he has. “Some of them have had physical threats, people threatening to take their homes away, private investigators following them. That’s the part that’s really heartbreaking.”
It’s this kind of abuse, not a South Park-style swipe at the religion’s more far-out beliefs, that’s the film’s focus. “It’s a mistake to jeer at Scientology because of its absurd creation story,” says Wright. “People can believe anything they want to believe — it’s the practices that I’m focusing on. When Scientology helps people, I say more power to you. But when it harms people and breaks families apart, it’s time for us to take a closer look.”