PARK CITY, Utah — Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which premiered to a packed theater on Sunday at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, contains a litany of damning allegations about the secretive and litigious church from several former high-ranking Scientology officials and high profile ex-members.
But virtually none of the revelations are all that new.
Directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and based on Lawrence Wright's book of (almost) the same name, Going Clear alleges, among other things, that Scientology leader David Miscavige orchestrated the divorce between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman after Cruise grew too distant from the church, including having Kidman's phone tapped and turning her children against her.
It alleges that the church subsequently groomed actress and Scientologist Nazanin Boniadi to be Cruise's girlfriend, including hair coloring and $20,000 in designer clothing, only to be summarily dumped and punished with menial labor after she was perceived to have slighted Miscavige at Cruise's home.
It alleges that the church has leveraged a trove of deeply personal information about member John Travolta — including implications about the actor's sexuality — to keep Travolta in the Scientology fold.
It alleges that Miscavige confined top lieutenants in what is characterized as a "prison camp," and also called "the hole," and subjected them to regular bouts of physical abuse.
It alleges that while tax documents reveal the church is valued at over $1 billion (at least), its membership rolls roughly number at just 50,000.
It alleges that church members are forced to sever all ties, or "disconnect," with family members who aren't a part of Scientology and/or are deemed a "suppressive person" by criticizing the church.
And it alleges that the church's core beliefs, written by founder L. Ron Hubbard and available only after years of involvement and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on church teachings, are rooted in a wildly outlandish science-fiction narrative. It involves a supreme alien overlord named Xenu and frozen alien bodies dropped in volcanos on Earth who then become "body thetans" that attach themselves to our bodies and are the source of all our fears and anxieties.
When reached for comment regarding the allegations in Going Clear, a spokesperson for the church provided the following statement to BuzzFeed News:
The accusations made in the film are entirely false and alleged without ever asking the Church. As we stated in our New York Times ad on January 16, Alex Gibney's film is Rolling Stone/University of Virginia redux. The Church is committed to free speech. However, free speech is not a free pass to broadcast or publish false information. Despite repeated requests over three months, Mr. Gibney and HBO refused to provide the Church with any of the allegations in the film so it could respond. Had Mr. Gibney given us any of these allegations, he would have been told the facts. But Gibney refused to speak with any of the 25 Church representatives, former spouses, and children of their sources who flew to New York to meet and provide him and HBO with firsthand knowledge regarding assertions made in Mr. Wright's book as that was all we had to guess from. Gibney's sources are the usual collection of obsessive, disgruntled former Church members kicked out as long as 30 years ago for malfeasance, who have a documented history of making up lies about the Church for money. We invite you to view our complete statement, correspondence, and documented facts at freedommag.org/hbo.
In response to the church's statement, a representative for Gibney directed BuzzFeed News to the director's comment that recently appeared in the New York Times:
In a statement, Mr. Gibney on Thursday said he had "requested interviews with various people — including current church members and officials — who could shed light on specific incidents discussed in the film." All of those asked, he added, "either declined, did not respond or set unreasonable conditions."
Despite the overwhelming number of allegations Going Clear levies against the church, anyone hoping to glean brand-new information about Scientology from the film is likely to be disappointed. Between Wright's book and the trove of reporting on Scientology starting from at least a 1991 Time magazine cover story on the church, virtually all the information in Going Clear has been reported in some fashion before. That includes the video that leaked in 2008 of Tom Cruise expounding on Scientology's virtues, and Oscar winning filmmaker Paul Haggis' scathing open letter renouncing Scientology in 2010. South Park famously took on Scientology in a 2005 episode called "Trapped in the Closet," which depicted Hubbard's Xenu/"body theatan" theology in a sequence with the subtitle, "This is what Scientologists actually believe."
But bombshell revelations are not the point nor the power of Going Clear. When HBO premieres the film on March 16, an audience likely much larger than the cult of people obsessed with the church will learn several of its allegations for the first time. At the Sundance premiere, in fact, several audience members could be heard guffawing at the section on Hubbard's Xenu theology, and a few gasped at the revelations about Cruise's divorce from Kidman.
The most damning section of the film is arguably its explication of how Scientology achieved tax-exempt status from the IRS in 1993 as an officially recognized religion — and the First Amendment protections that come with it. Over 2,400 lawsuits were filed against the IRS and individual IRS employees by Scientology members in thecChurch's efforts to become tax exempt, an unprecedented attack on the agency that proved to be profoundly effective. Again, that is not new information, but the way Going Clear lays it out drives home just how aggressive Scientology's tactics were to achieve the goal — and raises the question of whether the church should have that status at all. (In the post-screening Q&A, Gibney noted that Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden had asked the IRS to explain Scientology's tax-exempt status.)
The other powerful element in Going Clear is the human one. It is one thing to read about the church's allegedly abusive practices, but it is another to see one ex-Scientologist tearfully recall saying good-bye to her daughter for the last time after she had been labeled a suppressive person. Or to watch Miscavige deliver the news of Scientology's tax-exempt status to an arena of church faithfuls from an outlandishly elaborate stage that one ex-member compares to Nazi iconography. Or to witness another ex-Scientologist, a member of the church's elite Sea Organization, recount discovering her infant daughter in the church's in-house nursery for children of Sea Org members in a urine-soaked crib with so much mucus in her eyes that they had been sealed shut.
It's that kind of direct emotional impact that feature filmmaking can have that print investigative journalism, for all its virtues, usually cannot. At the very least, Going Clear is the most high profile exposé of Scientology yet. And given the well over-capacity crowd waiting for hours to see the film at Sundance, it will be far from the last.