Mar 15, 2017

Some documentaries, movies and shows about Scientology are better than others

Jim Bennett
Deseret News
March 14, 2017

At one point in 2007, BBC Panorama aired “Scientology and Me.” In it, host John Sweeney exploded in rage, screaming at a church representative at the top of his lungs. I’m confident that Sweeney brought the psychological scars of that encounter to his 2012 documentary “The Mormon Candidate,” which attempted to show how Mitt Romney’s faith would influence him were he to be elected president.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I thought Sweeney’s take on my church was deeply flawed and often unfair, but I don’t think he was trying to be disrespectful so much as skeptical, which unfortunately meant that he was far more trusting of former Mormons than current ones. So after Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles insisted that the LDS Church does not counsel its members to shun family members who no longer believe and that he would sooner “cut off (his) right arm” than cut one of his children out of his life, the film then cut away to a group of ex-Mormons who insisted that Elder Holland was lying. Journalistically, Sweeney could argue that he was just showing both sides, but by giving the dissidents the final word, it seemed pretty obvious to me which side he was on.

Since then, I haven’t seen any more high-profile Mormon exposés, but I’ve seen quite a few about the Church of Scientology, and some are demonstrably better than others.

“Going Clear,” the HBO documentary based on the excellent book of the same name, is probably the best of the bunch, as it generally tries to provide a comprehensive and relatively respectful history of Scientology that doesn’t go out of its way to ridicule the nascent religion.

Less successful, I think, is actress Leah Remini’s scathing tell-all series on A&E titled “Scientology and the Aftermath,” which documents the grievances of former Scientologists surrounding their church’s “disconnection” policy, which requires members to cut off ties with family members that Scientology brands as “suppressive persons” who speak out against the church. It’s a heartbreaking story, yes, but it’s essentially the same story retold by different people over the course of eight one-hour episodes. To the extent that they highlight genuine abuses within the Church of Scientology, Remini’s efforts may well do some good, but a viewer doesn’t learn much more from the last episode than what they already learned from the first.

The latest entry in this genre is a recently released film titled “My Scientology Movie,” which spends most of its time showing the host, Louis Theroux, getting into scuffles with Scientologists who are following him around while he’s shooting his film. About 20 or 30 minutes is spent covering an ongoing dispute over whether or not a street in front of a Scientology compound in Hemet, California, is actually a public road. (Believe me, that’s just as exciting as it sounds.) “My Scientology Movie” has a refreshingly quirky sensibility to it, but it’s pretty lightweight and ultimately adds nothing to a broader understanding of Scientology, especially if you've watched all those other shows first.

I confess that my impression of the Church of Scientology is largely negative, due in no small part to these kinds of depictions. But then I remember John Sweeney’s Mormon documentary, and I'm reminded that media coverage of religion is rarely satisfying to the subjects of the stories, and, even with the best of intentions, it is all too easy to misrepresent another person’s faith. So if you decide to watch these Scientology shows, I think it would be wise to try to imagine what they would be saying if it were your own church being put under the microscope.

(Spoiler alert: The last shot of “My Scientology Movie” announces that, yes, it was a public road. So there. Now you don’t have to go see the movie.)

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