Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie is perhaps his boldest documentary yet. The film attempts to explore the darker side of the much discussed Church of Scientology whilst using humour and Hollywood film sets to do so. An entertaining delight throughout, Theroux manages to create a hilariously revealing depiction of what is definitely the oddest religion out there.
One of the many brilliant mechanisms that the film uses is humour, which works brilliantly in foregrounding the bizarreness of Scientology. The comedy in the film is particularly familiar to those who remember Theroux’s one of a kind documentary series Weird Weekends. Of course, thanks to Netflix a whole new generation of ‘Louis Therouxists’ – thanks Adam Buxton for that apt term – have been born. Therefore, as an audience we’ve come to recognise the magic in Theroux’s mannerisms. For instance, if we’re watching Theroux torture an interviewee with one of his famous silent stares, we just know that the poor soul will attempt to fill the silence with whatever they can think of – which will usually be extremely revealing.
In FACT’s live satellite Q&A held after the film’s first showing this week, Adam Buxton asked Louis Theroux how he feels about often being accused of giving his interviewees “enough rope to hang themselves”. In response, Theroux rejected that accusation, instead re-attributing himself with the potential to offer people a platform on which they can tell their story. Whichever way you want to look at it, and whether it’s a technique or not, Theroux certainly has the capacity to allow his interviewees to be utterly candid.
Moreover, comedy’s strong presence in the film simultaneously works to contrast the uncomfortable and, at times, frightening components of Scientology. At one moment you could be laughing at the total ridiculousness of Theroux going red in the face from asking an ashtray to sit down and stand up, and the next you could be genuinely fearing for Theroux and his team’s safety after their car is tailed for four hours straight by unknown members of the Church. Likewise, while watching an ex-member of Scientology being hounded, threatened and insulted by current members of the Church, you as an audience realise that although Scientology is easy to point and laugh at by outsiders, the reality of it is extremely unsettling and out of control.
Interestingly though – and this is by no means a criticism of Louis Theroux (I think that would be considered treason) – I must admit that when I came away from the screening I still found myself wondering ‘but what actually is Scientology anyway?’
This is because the film focuses heavily on the utterly bizarre social practices surrounding the religion and fails to provide an explanation of what the actual spiritual and scientific teachings involve. Case in point is that for me, after having watched the film, I still don’t have an exact understanding of what stance a Scientologist has on God, aliens, the afterlife and so on. However, I think that’s exactly the effect Theroux was going for. He said himself in the screening’s Q&A that many Scientologists loosely pick and choose the Church’s teachings to suit them best. Therefore, the film’s focus on Hollywood, money and fear is effective in helping us to understand that those are in fact in many ways the same topics and principles held at the core of Scientology.
My Scientology Movie is a brilliant amalgamation of everything we’ve come to expect from a Louis Theroux documentary. It simultaneously manages to contain the sheer nuttiness of Weird Weekends, whilst maintaining a serious and disturbing edge that is reminiscent of Theroux’s more recent works. It is definitely a must see.