Film

Sundance 2015: “Going Clear” documentary hopes to remove the secrecy of Scientology

America still holds a fascination with the Church of Scientology, it’s seemingly secretive doctrine and closed off castle-like structures only serve to heighten our curiosity, and we can’t help but collectively wonder what exactly goes on behind the gates and offices of the gigantic religious buildings.

Alex Gibney’s new documentary, “Going Clear,” aims to bring these operations to light, just as Lawrence Wright’s 2013 nonfiction bestseller of the same name did in the literary world. The title stems from the goal of cleansing oneself within the religion while auditing. That auditing is a major source of the church’s income, and a focal point in the film. The project isn’t just a film-adaptation of Wright’s work, it adds new content and offers a clear inside-look at the workings of the church and its followers. With interviews and actual videos from the church, some of the footage used in the film is as surprising as you may be expecting. The film isn’t looking for a buyer at Sundance, where it premiered to the press, instead it will head to HBO in March for the world to see.

Wright served as a producer on this film, and is also one of the interviews you won’t want to miss. Wright’s book does offer a more comprehensive guide to unraveling the mysteries of Scientology, but films are often forced to remove more material than their novel counterparts.

Since current Scientologists are the least likely to talk to anyone making a documentary about their religion, most of the film features ex-Scientologists, which to be fair, might not be totally unbiased in their retelling of the stories and operations of the church itself. Some interviews come straight from the book, like the now famous Sylvia Taylor, who became a popular addition to the novel since she was appointed as John Travolta’s personal guide.

The film does touch on the founder, and once sci-fi writer, L. Ron Hubbard as well. Of the more damning installments to the belief-structure is when the film blatantly compares Hubbard’s early science-fiction work to the actual teachings of the church. There are also letters written from Hubbard’s second wife, Sara Northrup Hollister, former interviews that Hubbard did on television, and notes straight from the church as well.

There are new, and extremely touching, interviews to be found within the film as well. Sara Goldberg is definitely one of the most interesting, since she was also one of the highest ranking followers within the religion at one time. Goldberg was an Operating Thetan Level 8, which takes years to acquire and is only given out to a chosen few in the religion. Normally a level 8 would never participate in such a film, but Goldberg left Scientology in 2013 due to a conflict with her son and the church’s teachings. After Goldberg’s son was labeled as a “suppressive person,” she was told she had to “disconnect” from him, in order to proceed. When Goldberg refused to do this, she left the religion.

The film also does a fantastic job at revealing just how well the church seems to be doing, since most of the financial records, staffing and services are closed off from the public, it was interesting to see the basic numbers. Active church members sits around 50,000 right now, almost non-existent when compared to other major religions around the world, and far lower than many people might expect when they walk by the gigantic churches and complexes.

That is actually the crown-jewel it seems of the organization’s wealth. Global real-estate holdings are estimated to be worth about $3 billion, and while their numbers are small, attracting some of Hollywood’s wealthiest clients makes up for their low-populated congregation.

The fact remains that no-matter how you look at Scientology it is a faith-based organization, and how you portray someone’s religion is a powerful responsibility. Although the film does try to be as unbiased as possible, with in-depth interviews and well-researched cross-examinations of literary evidence, the film does come across as instantly demeaning of the church’s practices. The film’s subtitle is “the prison of belief,” which you may agree with when talking about Scientology, could be just as easily said about anyone’s religion across the world. Anyone interested in seeing the film can do so in March on HBO.