Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is a documentary film directed by acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney. Based on Lawrence Wright’s book by the (almost) same name, Going Clear examines the history of Scientology, starting with the writings of its founder and science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard and its development towards the religion and organisation it is today. Through various interviews with high profile ex-scientologists, Gibney exposes the events that transpire behind the closed doors of Scientology, involving blackmail, manipulation and abuse.
The church of Scientology is an institution that deals with secrets. Its business is in controlling the secrets of its members, the mysteries of its teachings and practises, and its self contained world with no outside influence or communication.
The group is known to vehemently attack and silence any criticism of its religion or its members. Indeed, this was the case with Going Clear. The film faced many difficulties with distribution as the church condemned many of its accusations.
But even with this threatening aspect of the church Gibney doesn’t pull his punches. Having made films that focus on corporate corruption, wikileaks whistleblowers, and the war on terror, Gibney is not one to shy away from hard-hitting subjects, earning him much respect as a documentarian. He starts by telling the history of the organisation, and its membership process.
Through money and secrets the church wields power over its members, promising spiritual insight and clarification to their lives. When joining the church of Scientology, members must undergo ‘auditing’ sessions. These sessions have the individual connected to a lie-detector-esque machine called an e-meter. The person then purges their deepest secrets as part of a cleansing act. These secrets are recorded and then, through increasing cash payments, a member can work their way up ‘the bridge’. Each tier of the bridge promises new understandings and teachings of the religion until a person reaches the top and gains enlightenment.
Gibney highlights the exploitation of the churches’ members and their paranoia towards media coverage. Continuing down the rabbit hole, Gibney further exposes the abuse and harassment that senior members face at the hand of current leader David Miscavige, hinting at the subsequent blackmail of celebrity status scientologists such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Scientology has always had ‘creepy cult’ status about it, but Gibney persuasively puts forward that this organisation goes beyond creepy and into the realms of sinister. As a result, the film verges on a thriller rather than documentary.
In terms of form, the film has interesting visual imagery such as the ticking of an e-meter and the clicking of a typewriter. But it falls short of any imaginative visuals. Archives and re-enactments are used masterfully but there is little artistic expression. In terms of subject, the film is also too focused on creating an unnerving image of the church and less interested in exploring why exactly people join the church of Scientology. If it is just down to faith and brainwashing – what is it about Scientology that exposes an individual to a transcendent experience? It would have been insightful to examine the human side of why people look deeply toward faith, specifically in the context of Scientology.
Nevertheless, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is a true piece of investigatory documentary filmmaking, revealing the secrets behinds the systems and structures of a paranoid organisation. Gibney shines a glaring light upon Scientology, and its sickening obsession with the power, knowledge and secrecy.