Monday 5 December 2016

The film Scientologists didn't want you to see...

As Sky defies the highly litigious and combative organisation to air the most-talked about documentary in years, Eva hall asks what all the fuss is about?

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

Faith: Tom Cruise is a long-time Scientology member.
Faith: Tom Cruise is a long-time Scientology member.
John Travolta

Six months, 160 lawyers, and a full-page ad in the New York Times later, Sky Atlantic are finally airing Alex Gibney's controversial documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

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The two-hour long film, based on Lawrence Wright's book of the same name, traces the origins of Scientology all the way back to its founder, L Ron Hubbard, in the 1950s. Gibney, an Oscar-winning film-maker who brought us Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, and The Armstrong Lie, interviews eight ex-Scientologists for Going Clear, including film-maker Paul Haggis, and one-time John Travolta confidante Spanky Taylor.

Initially aired on HBO in the US in March, Sky Atlantic, which owns theatrical rights to Going Clear, was expected to air it a day later. But the film never appeared on its schedule, with the explanation that an air date had yet to be "confirmed".

It was then widely reported that the film would receive a theatrical release in UK and Irish cinemas on June 26. Again, the film failed to screen at any cinema.

Speculation mounted that the Church of Scientology, which vehemently disputes all claims in the documentary as "entirely false", threatened legal action against any distributor that screened the film.

In April, the church said in a statement: "The Church of Scientology will be entitled to seek the protection of both UK and Irish libel laws in the event that any false or defamatory content in this film is broadcast within these jurisdictions." In June, Screen Daily reported that UK lawyers acting on behalf of the church had contacted at least one distributor and warned of potential copyright infringement.

Sky told Review they "cannot comment on any threats made against other parties".

In its efforts to rubbish Gibney's and former members' claims, in January of this year the church took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, with the tagline 'Is Alex Gibney's Upcoming HBO "Documentary" a Rolling Stone/UVA Redux?' - referring to the retracted Rolling Stone article which alleged a gang rape occurred at the University of Virginia - and sent a five-page letter to the Hollywood Reporter outlining everything it claims was a "falsehood".

Speaking last week, Gibney said: "We were flooded with a Niagara Falls of legal letters and legal threats, none of which were made real. No lawsuits prevailed."

Among the claims the church is refuting are, multiple abuses and physical assaults by senior church members, imprisonment, child neglect, and totalitarian control by chair of the board, David Miscavige, who took leadership after Hubbard's passing in 1986.

So what is Alex Gibney telling us about the church that we haven't already heard?

First up we hear from Paul Haggis, a member of the church for 35 years, who says he signed up when a friend told him "if you give them all your money they'll make anything possible in your life".

Haggis shed some light on Scientology's best-kept secret (until South Park's 'Trapped in the Closet' episode unleashed it to the world in 2005) - the 'Operating Thetan III' level. When a member reaches OT III, they are given Hubbard's handwritten notes in which they learn that Xenu, a galactic overlord, brought billions of his species to Earth only to bomb them and kill them, and their spirits are now contaminating humans.

Haggis tells Gibney's camera he initially thought this level was a test of his insanity, and if he showed he didn't believe it he had reached the 'Clear' stage.

Gibney shares disclosures from Hubbard's second wife Sara Northrup, in which we hear how Hubbard came up with Dianetics, the set of ideas that the Scientology religion is based on, purely to make money.

Northrup paints a picture of Hubbard as a violent man, who lied and scammed his way to millions of dollars. She writes about how Hubbard claimed to have been cured of blindness during his time in the military - army records suggest he suffered from "mild conjunctivitis." He continuously threatened suicide if Northrup ever left him, and even went so far as to kidnap their baby daughter and pretend he had killed her, only to return her to Northrup. He eventually granted her the divorce she was seeking, but not before fleeing with all the money in their joint bank accounts, according to the documentary.

Going Clear touches on the battle between the church and the Internal Revenue Service, in which the IRS was chasing the organisation for a billion dollar tax bill. In 1991, Miscavige met with IRS chiefs and managed to persuade the organisation to grant Scientology its religious status, in return for the several lawsuits the church had against IRS officials to be quashed.

The most interesting parts to the general public - celebrity members - weren't left out - although most of the titbits have been widely covered in Vanity Fair's 2012 exposé. The film claims Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's marriage was picked apart by senior members, and that the excessive auditing Cruise underwent during that time was used to push him away from Kidman, who was branded a 'suppressive person'.

Spanky Taylor, a former member who claimed she was subjected to long stretches of hard labour, says she recruited John Travolta, among others, to join. Taylor alleges she escaped from the church, when she was pregnant with her second child, due to the neglect her daughter suffered. She questions why Travolta didn't leave the church after seeing her alleged mistreatment, and implies that Travolta's auditing sessions are being used to blackmail the actor to stay.

Other talking heads in the film include Marty Rathbun, who has been the subject of Scientology documentaries before - most notably Channel 4's Scientologists at War - and Mike Rinder, who has long been a critic of the church in the US media.

Gibney claims Miscavige and other current high-ranking members of the church refused to talk with him for the film.

Sky told Screen Daily that no edits had been made to the film ahead of its Irish broadcast, but that additional captions have been added to reflect the views of the church.

According to Screen Daily, Sky said: "We have had correspondence with legal representatives from the Church of Scientology."

Despite the backlash, Gibney spoke of a sequel to Going Clear at the Creative Arts Emmys last week, where he won Best Documentary: "There's a lot more material already that I've received and a lot more information to come out. There's more to be done."

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief airs on Sky Atlantic on Monday at 9pm.

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