Quaint, polite Englishman slash documentarian Louis Theroux aims his keen eye and curious mind on the immensely powerful and somewhat frightening Church of Scientology in Louis Theroux: My Scientology Movie (2016, dir. John Dower). A documentary that takes its time to wonder about what makes Scientology the juggernaut it is, Theroux’s voice leads us viewers down a rabbit hole of cultish behaviour, creepy behavioural exercises, and disturbing reenactments of real life events. After Louis’ request to visit a visit to the Church’s headquarters is rejected, he chooses to explore the religion by connecting with one of its most infamous ex-members, and by staging re-enactments of alleged violent incidences within the Church. But what happens when the Church decides to make its own film on Louis?
Poor Louis has to deal with so much crazy stuff when he’s making his features. From confronting scary jail inmates, to being physically threatened by massive racists, to being sickened by paedophiles and beyond, Louis Theroux seems to seek out the craziest parts of life and shine a light on them so that we, in turn, can understand ourselves better as a species. It only seems natural that he would focus on Scientology eventually, and that he might have a fascination with the Church, given its mysteries and controversies. Again, poor Louis, opening up another can of worms. The thing is, the can of worms for this film is really not so big. If you’re looking for a film that blows open the lid of Scientology and spills worms literally everywhere through exposing its gnarled roots and science fiction system of belief, you’re looking for a documentary called Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015). Still, the enjoyment of My Scientology Movie isn’t necessarily in its recounting of history – it’s in the way the premise of the film is explored and communicated, through Louis’ well-meaning lens which seems to be a magnet for trouble.
Some moments of My Scientology Movie feel a bit like you’re peeling an onion – some of this film is about filming re-enactments, during which the narrator of the film is being stalked and filmed by the group of people he’s re-enacting. It sounds kind of confusing, but it makes sense in the moment. We see Louis and company cast their re-enactments, and it’s all very meta, in a good way. As a result, the film also feels a little bit like another amazing documentary, The Act of Killing (2012); we’re watching an alleged perpetrator of violent incidences (ex-Scientology member Marty Rathbun) watch these incidences play out in front of his very eyes, in some very tense moments indeed, including when Louis asks him about what happened. These moments are framed by beautiful and focused direction by John Dower. The magic of this documentary only increases when Louis and the production are put under further pressure whilst making the documentary, by real life Scientologist trying to ruin everything. To his credit, Louis rarely loses his cool, which makes for a strangely, quietly thrilling viewing experience.
Louis Theroux’s genius lies in his quiet wonderings and saintly tolerance of uncomfortable silences, which evokes deeper reflection in his interviewees’ responses to his wonderings. Likewise, My Scientology Movie is a quirky, fascinating, and extremely watchable examination of a pretty weird (no offense, Scientologists) belief system and organisational structure. The premise of the film is made clear from the get-go, and as aforementioned, if you’re looking for a film that exposes all the nasty bits of Scientology, or if you’re wanting a refresher course on its beliefs and lore, then look elsewhere. But if you’re up for an understated and clever journey of some of the darker moments in tax-evading pseudo-religious cult-like groups of people, then My Scientology Movie might be for you. It’s a bit different when compared to Louis’ other works, but in and of itself, it’s great.
Is it worth paying for a ticket?: Yes.
Watch the trailer here.