Controversial Scientology Documentary 'Going Clear' Has Everyone Talking & Here's What You Need To Know About It

Hollywood US star Tom Cruise inaugurates 18 September 2004 in Madrid a new centre for the controversial Church of Scientology, of which he is a member. Cruise, who attended the European premiere of his new thriller 'Collateral' in Venice earlier this month, spoke briefly in Spanish to the 1,000-odd people gathered at the new centre near the national parliament. Church members have for several days been distributing leaflets inviting people to come to 'a party which will be attended by Tom Cruise,' an AFP journalist said. Founded in the United States in 1954 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology was accorded the status of religion there in 1993, but is regarded with suspicion in many European countries, where opponents accuse it of manipulating members for financial ends. AFP PHOTO/ Pierre-Philippe MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/GettyImages)
Source: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images

"Allegedly" is a word you'll hear often in discussion of the controversial scientology documentary Going Clear. Since making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the HBO documentary from Oscar winner Alex Gibney has withstood the fury of the Church of Scientology, which allegedly included establishing an entire website and social media strategy dedicated to discrediting the production and its creators. UPDATE: The Church of Scientology has reached out to Bustle, stating: "The accusations made in the film are entirely false and alleged without ever asking the Church."

Subtitled Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Going Clear features a slew of interviews with self-proclaimed Scientology defectors who are now speaking out against the Church. With this ammunition, the film attempts to reveal some of the craziest and allegedly straight-up illegal actions the Church has performed in their pursuit of discretion and maintaining some semblance of religious legitimacy, which allegedly (there’s that word again) includes slave labor, phone tapping, and one of the most highly publicized celebrity breakups of all time. Understandably, the Church is not taking this lying down. 

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief debuts on HBO Sunday, March 29 at 8 p.m. EST, and you can bet the Church will make an even louder raucous. HBO is prepared for it. Before then, here’s everything you need to know about the documentary everyone will be talking about.

What Is Going Clear?

It all got started with a profile of Paul Haggis, a filmmaker who won two Oscars for Crash and whose screenplays for Letters to Iwo Jima and Million Dollar Baby earned him two other nominations. But more importantly, he’s an ex-Scientologist. Lawrence Wright published said profile back in a 2011 issue of The New Yorker, titled “The Apostate.” From there, the article served as Wright’s further expansion on the subject into what was his widely read Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Gibney's documentary takes its name and basis from this book. 

“There are often times good-hearted people, idealistic, but full of a kind of crushing certainty that eliminates doubt,” Wright said in the documentary. “My goal wasn’t to write an expose. It was simply to understand Scientology, trying to understand what people get out of it.” Going Clear's main aim is, as Gibney put it, "raising public awareness" on the Church and its practices. This is mainly done in telling of the rise of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and that of his successor, David Miscavige. 

Why Is It So Controversial?

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Rumors of protests from the Church during the debut at Sundance caused the screening to be packed with press. During the Q&A with the filmmaker and select subjects that followed, a human barrier was reportedly erected as a precaution, though nothing happened. Given the claims made in Going Clear by its interview subjects, however, such actions were arguably warranted. 

Among the most outrageous include:

  • Borderline slave labor: the Church allegedly pays its members $.06-$.40 an hour physical labor. The Church denies these claims. 
  • IRS evasion: Hubbard allegedly set up Scientology's Sea Org in response to an investigation by the IRS for tax evasion. The Church denies these claims. 
  • The true origin of Scientology: Hubbard allegedly founded the religion to bolster his declining sci-fi book sales. The Church denies these claims. 
  • Blackmail: the Church allegedly blackmailed John Travolta with personal information to keep his sexuality in the closet. The Church denies these claims. 
  • Cutting off family ties: Church allegedly mandates that Scientologists cut off ties with family and friends who defect from the religion. The Church denies these claims. 

And then there's the big Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman split

According to one of the film's interview subjects, Marty Rathbun — who was once the second-highest ranking in the Church — Miscavige had a heavy hand in prompting this breakup. According to Rathbun's testimony, Kidman was labeled a "potential trouble source," aka PTS, for the Church; her father was a psychiatrist, a profession the Church allegedly vehemently denounces. Kidman allegedly convinced Cruise to distance himself from Scientology to the point when he wouldn't even return Miscavige's phone calls. Considering Miscavige served as the best man at his wedding, this was kind of a big deal. The Church denies these claims. 

Rathbun was then tasked "to facilitate the breakup with Nicole Kidman," as he claims in Going Clear. Among the tactics used to make this come about were, allegedly, wire tapping Kidman's phones and over-auditing Cruise in order to use his personal information to persuade him back to their side. Worse still, the documentary claims that the Church "re-educated" Kidman's children into turning against their mother in order for Cruise to keep custody. The Church denies these claims. 

What Has The Church Done In Response?

Since word of mouth started building buzz for Going Clear at the film's Sundance premiere, the Church of Scientology has mounted a full-scale retaliation online, in the media and through social media. The most notable response has been through FreedomMag.org, a site that pegs itself to be "the voice of the Church." On it reads a statement declaring every accusation slung at them by Gibney and his film to be "entirely false." It reads in part:

The Church has documented evidence that those featured in Gibney’s film regurgitating their stale, discredited allegations are admitted perjurers, admitted liars and professional anti-Scientologists whose living depends on the filing of false claims. All have been gone so long from the Church they know nothing of it today. Yet Gibney and HBO stonewalled more than a dozen requests by the Church to offer relevant information about them, with more than 25 individuals with firsthand information eager to speak. To this day, neither HBO nor Gibney can deny that they have yet to present the Church with a single allegation from the film so the Church may have an opportunity to respond.

The site has made the Church's aim clear: to discredit any and all allegations lodged against them, as well as discrediting Gibney and his subjects themselves. "We have received many cards and letters," Gibney joked to press after the Sundance screening. However, their campaign extends beyond what we might expect.

Prior to the doc's release, the Church sent The Hollywood Reporter a five-page letter (which can be read in its entirety here) that attempts to address Going Clear's claims. The industry trade originally requested to screen the documentary with some of the Church's top officials. Though this request was denied, Karin Pouw, a rep of the Church, allowed THR to send over any questions they might have. This lengthy letter came back in response after they received a list of 20 questions. 

What Is HBO Doing In Preparation?

Gibney and Wright are not scared of a few legal letters; they're used to mud-slinging in their scholarly pursuits. HBO is ready to back them up: Back in 2014 when word of Going Clear's final touches were first reported by THR, HBO Documentary Films President Sheila Nevins said, "We have probably 160 lawyers [looking at the film]." 

In 1998, HBO grappled with Scientology protesters in light of the documentary Dead Blue: Surviving Depression. Church members were outraged that the network would portray antidepressants in such a positive light. After that experience, Nevins says, "We'll be ready."

Final Word?

Despite the "he said, she said" fiasco, Gibney and Wright accomplished with such jarring testimony what life is allegedly like for those who enter the Church and what it's allegedly like for those who choose to leave. Many, through their own admissions in Going Clear, were allegedly led with false promises of obtaining "superpowers," of making anything in one's life possible, of influencing the world in a positive light. According to Haggis, the one promise that sold him came in a book that read, as he paraphrased, "Don’t believe any of this. If it works for you, great. If it doesn’t, discard it." As revealed through rare archival footage of prominent Church figures and events to amplify these confessions, allegedly, most did not find the grass to be greener. 

"The kind of threats that I’ve received as a reporter and Alex has subsequently received as a filmmaker have been predominantly legal, and they have been manifold, but they are not the kinds of things that have been trained on other people who have left the Church,” Wright said back during Sundance. “What I want to underscore is the tremendous amount of courage it took for people to come out.”

Images: Vintage; Getty (2); YouTube

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