What We Can Expect From HBO's Damning Scientology Documentary

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The Scientology building in Hollywood (Photo by Kristin Licitis via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)

It's only four days until HBO's damning Scientology documentary is set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. HBO has been keeping Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief under wraps in fear that the Church of Scientology will try to block any of their content from being shown at the premiere. However, in a new interview with the film's director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side), he gives some details on what to expect in the movie.

The documentary is based on Lawrence Wright's bestselling 2013 nonfiction book with a similar title as the film, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. It takes an in-depth look at the controversy surrounding the religion, allegations of abuse (both physical and emotional), and its deep-rooted Hollywood celebrity connections.

Gibney tells the Hollywood Reporter what to look forward to in the documentary, which took two years to make:

  • There will be old footage of church founder L. Ron Hubbard that aids in telling the story about his journey into building the religion up to what it is today.
  • We'll get to see rare video clips of Scientology gatherings that will give us a "visceral sense of what it's like to be inside the church," Gibney says. This includes recordings of one of the church's biggest celebrity supporters, Tom Cruise, and of church leader David Miscavige giving cheery speeches to the group followed by fervent applause.
  • It'll focus on Scientology's star following, especially taking a close look at Cruise and John Travolta's involvement—and this won't be painting a pretty picture of them. The documentary discusses how they're still members despite all the complaints from people about the abuse and forced labor the church imposes on its members.
  • One former member of the church even talks about how Miscavige secretly would make fun of Cruise's personal life.
  • There will be interviews with a number of former, high-ranking Scientology officials and members. This includes former longtime Scientologist and filmmaker Paul Haggis who left the church in 2009. His controversial 2011 New Yorker interview with Wright sparked the Wright's interest in writing his book on the religion. According to the NY Times, we'll also see interviews with Miscavige's former lieutenant Marty Rathbun, former senior executive of the church Michael Rinder, and actor Jason Beghe whom Miscavige once called the "poster boy for Scientology."
  • And in a rare on-camera interview, Spanky Taylor, who worked in Scientology's Los Angeles Celebrity Centre and served as a liaison to Travolta, will delve into the horrible punishments she received when the church became unhappy with her. According to the Daily Beast, the book covers how "the church took away Taylor’s 10-month-old daughter and crammed her, along with 30 infants, in the Child Care Org, a small apartment with wall-to-wall cribs."

However, who we won't be hearing from in the documentary are the current head honchos of the church. Scientology spokeswoman Karen Pouw told the Hollywood Reporter that they weren't able to respond to the film because Gibney didn't supply them with the list of the allegations they're purporting in the film. "Free speech is not a free pass to broadcast or publish false information," Pouw said.

The church told the New York Times that Gibney rebuffed 12 of their requests to speak about the accusations, and that Gibney only wanted interviews with Miscavige, Cruise, Travolta, and other celebrity followers. Gibney argued that he did request interviews, but he was either rejected by the church or asked to follow their orders for what he described as "unreasonable conditions."

The church put out a full-page ad in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times last Friday, blasting the film.

HBO has lawyered up (they reportedly have 160 lawyers checking out the film which took two years to make) in anticipation of the legal onslaught they'll most likely face from the Church of Scientology, who are infamously known for being litigious. Gibney tells the New York Times that the clips they've used in the film are licensed, in the public domain, or in the bounds of fair use.

Rinder hopes this documentary can change the status quo. He told the New York Times, "I hope this movie increases public pressure for the church to change its abusive practices."

After its Sundance premiere, Going Clear will be featured in a few small theaters before it makes its way to HBO on March 16.