Sundance ’15: Scientology doc causes Park City stir

Realscreen correspondent Michael Speier offers his reaction to Alex Gibney's documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (pictured), following its Sundance world premiere.
January 27, 2015

Realscreen correspondent¬†Michael Speier offers his reaction to Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief¬†(pictured), following its Sundance world premiere.

If there was any doubt that Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief was a must-see at the Sundance Film Festival, that was quickly erased when – even an hour before its Sunday afternoon (January 25) screening began – the film had spawned a huge admission queue.

Alex Gibney‘s documentary didn’t disappoint. Going Clear pushes an aggressive takedown of the controversial religion and its most famous members, including Tom Cruise, and proved quite the populist bombshell, receiving a long and loud standing ovation.

The ovation became longer and louder when several former Scientologists – subjects in the film who were in the audience – were introduced and brought on stage.

A straw poll of reactions afterwards had most people fawning over the film, with comments such as “game-changer” and “award-winner” thrown around. Among press, the most critical responses weren’t so much negative, but instead focused on complaints that no new ground or significant revelations had been covered.

The documentary is based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 book and airs on HBO later this year. Wright’s book grew from a 2011 New Yorker article that covered Oscar-winning Crash director Paul Haggis’s decision to leave the religion.

Thus far, Going Clear has been one of the best-received films of the festival – and that’s including fiction entries.

One of the focal points of the film is that Scientology is classified as a religion by the U.S. government, which allows for large tax exemptions. The doc states that the religion is valued at more than US$1 billion, but has less than 50,000 members.

For its part, the Church of Scientology has dismissed Gibney’s doc, taking out a full page advert in the New York Times in a bid to discredit the director’s approach in making the film.

One of the more emotional moments in the film came when a former Church member said her daughter had cut all ties with her because Scientology didn’t approve of their relationship.

On the celebrity revelation front, the most shocking scene in the film – judging from viewer reactions – was the allegation that the Church forced Cruise to split from fellow actor Nicole Kidman, and used a host of intimidating tactics to get them to end their relationship.

This testimony comes from former senior Church executive Marty Rathbun. Cruise and Kidman, a card states at the end, refused to grant interviews to Gibney.

During the after-screening Q&A, Gibney told the audience that none of the TV networks he had approached would license footage to him out of fear of retaliation. He therefore had to use U.S. Fair Use law, which allowed him to use copyrighted material without getting permission.

There were many high-profile attendees at the Marc Theater, including Morgan Spurlock, Alec Baldwin, Tobey Maguire and Jason Sudeikis.

And while there had been concerns that protests would take place, nothing took shape.

HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins recently stated that more than 160 attorneys were involved in the making of the film.

And Gibney backed that on Sunday, saying he and HBO had indeed received “many cards and letters” from the religion’s representatives.

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