Creator of Hit Scientology Film Tells Haaretz Why He's No Longer Afraid

Alex Gibney speaks to Haaretz about his new documentary, which exposes the myths and facts surrounding one of the world’s wealthiest cults.

HBO

For years the Church of Scientology was wrapped in a thick cloak of secrecy. Even members were only told years after joining the church about the secret story of its creation — and that was also after they’d handed over almost all their assets to it. But anyone who sees Alex Gibney’s new documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” has to wait less than an hour before learning the biblical-like story behind this “faith.”

It seems that 75 million years ago a powerful alien named Xenu arrived on the planet Earth. The world was then exactly like the United States was in the 1950s, with people, houses and cars. According to the late founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard — who also completely by chance was a science-fiction writer — Xenu brought billions of his fellow aliens to Earth in a spacecraft that looked like an airplane, planted them around volcanoes, and destroyed them with hydrogen bombs.

The dead aliens’ “immortal spirits” become attached to living human beings, damage them and have yet to let go of them. Long-time Scientology members are still busy today trying to get rid of these spirits in various ways.

Gibney presents this whole fantasy in an entertaining visual montage, including commentary by himself and by screenwriter Paul Haggis, who was once a member of the church and is also interviewed in the film.

“Going Clear” is without a doubt the most talked-about documentary of the year. It paints a complex and expansive picture of the Church of Scientology which has relatively few members — about 50,000 people all over the world, including some in Israel — but has attracted a long list of celebrities, amassed a large amount of real estate, and accumulated enormous amounts of cash. Indeed, the film also exposes the inability of the U.S. tax system to deal with that situation.

But it is not just the movie itself which is fascinating. No less interesting is the fact that this extremely well researched and comprehensive documentary (two hours long) is actually just one of Gibney’s many projects in recent years. He has made documentaries about Wikileaks, Lance Armstrong, James Brown, Steve Jobs, Enron and Frank Sinatra, as well as working on a new Internet series at present.

Gibney, 61, was born in New York and was expected to follow in the footsteps of his journalist-father, Frank Gibney, who died in 2006 and was also an editor, author and vice chairman of Encyclopedia Britannica’s editorial board.

Alex Gibney’s parents divorced when he was 3 years old, and he grew up with his mother Harriet and his stepfather, the human rights activist Rev. William Sloane Coffin. After an undergraduate degree from Yale and then studies at the UCLA Film School, Gibney edited film promos and wrote for various publications, including The Atlantic.

In a way, Gibney found a way to combine the activities of his two fathers — by making documentaries. His 2007 political film “Taxi to the Dark Side” exposed the apparently accepted methods of torture used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo, and won him an Academy Award for best documentary feature.

Gibney’s production company, Jigsaw Productions, makes independent films, documentaries about musicians and music, and television mini-series.

Modern Greek tragedies

Many of Gibney’s movies, which involve an enormous amount of work and serious research, seem to be modern versions of Greek tragedies, with the subjects falling victim to their own hubris. As with many documentaries today, they are also entertaining thrillers with a plot, and the motives of the subjects are analyzed deeply. But Gibney is unique as a director in this genre in his ambivalent attitude toward his subjects and his quest for the truth.

By means of his interviewees in “Going Clear” — members who left the Church of Scientology after many years — Gibney exposes the way it works, the physical and psychological manipulations it wields, and its small size relative to its enormous financial assets. HBO, which recently broadcast the film, has prepared itself with an army of 160 lawyers to deal with the expected lawsuits from the church — but for now, it’s paid off with HBO’s highest rating in the past decade.

After the movie aired, the church responded quickly and, as in similar cases, sought to attack it and Gibney in every way possible.

“Look, I’ve been vilified,” he told Haaretz in a telephone interview. “But that kind of comes with the territory. Luckily for me, I’d already gone through the process of being vilified,” he added.

“I was ready for that ... a lot of legal letters coming across. But I think they [officials of the church] save the worst of their behavior for the people that are in the cult. And they came down on them [the interviewees] pretty hard They hired members from the church to threaten them, sometimes physically I noticed, in particular, they seemed to focus their ire on the women. There are three women in the film, but two in particular ... They went after them.

“[The officials] seem to focus their rage not just on the critics but on ex-members The Church of Scientology is not just a prison of belief but in some ways it’s a real prison, because they try to prevent people from leaving. Even the Catholic Church doesn’t do that: If you decide one day you’re not going to go to Mass anymore, they don’t show up on your doorstep with a bunch of people with beards and masks over their faces.

“When I started the Scientology film, the most important thing was ... to understand why it was that smart, discerning people came to believe so intensely in this religion that seems, from the outside, to be the wackiest idea — that beings were dropped in volcanoes And fragmenting spirits attached themselves to people’s bodies A lot of it sounds pretty nutty.

“But to understand how people got into it was important to me because I never really got them [before]. And that ended up giving me an insight not only into Scientology but into all beliefs ... So, yeah, I think you want to immerse yourself in these worlds, if you can, to get a better understanding of what’s going on.”

What he found so amazing while making the film, he says, was how much time it took people to disassociate themselves from the church: “One of the things that was most interesting to me was how hard it was and how long it took for people — and I’m using this [phrase] in a perfectly ironic way — to disconnect their minds from the force of Scientology. The prison door was open; they refuse to leave. They don’t want to leave. And even those who decide to leave the religion — it took years and years and years to really reckon with the fact that they believed something that was just nutty, and crazy, and that they had trespassed their own boundaries.”

A lot of this behavior, added Gibney, is related to a sort “of psychology that I think is universal: that we have a hard time seeing or recognizing our own mistakes. .. You’re in the church for 15-something years, and you wake up one day and you’re like: Oh my god, what have I been doing? ... It was fascinating for me, how hard it was to walk out of the prison cell of belief.”

Celeb attraction

Tom Cruise, a high-profile Scientologist, receives quite a lot of coverage in “Going Clear.” The reason for this, the filmmaker explained, is simply because the actor is the “poster boy for the religion/cult.” Cruise alone has apparently attracted thousands of followers to the church, and must know about its deceptive means of operating, and the way it employs people for a pittance although it has enormous sums at its disposal.

“He doesn’t need Scientology’s money,” Gibney said of Cruise. “I don’t think that’s the nature of what he gets from them ... He’s a very powerful and wealthy movie star ... But I think there’s a sense of loving that privilege and the honor of being a great Scientologist. So, I think again, it’s not so much the money, it’s the psychology, and his tendency to look the other way in the face of documents that are really appalling.”

I don’t think it’s by chance that a lot of actor have found themselves in Scientology. There’s something very glamorous about it, and I think there’s a lot of resemblance between Hollywood and Scientology. Is that true?

“I think there are a couple of things. First of all, Hubbard, I think, was brilliant in terms of putting the headquarters of Scientology in Hollywood, because he understood that the real religion, in America, the one thing that everybody believes in, is the corporate [world] of celebrity When you ask people about Scientology, they say, the Tom Cruise religion? He’s a recognizable movie star, all over the world ...

“Actors, I think, are vulnerable people; they have to be vulnerable to have a role and to be in Scientology is kind of an acting class ... You have an acting school that is very well regarded ... It’s brilliant. And the beauty of Scientology, like Hollywood, is that there’s the belief that you can do what we do at anytime. And that’s pretty much the American [ideal], too: that you can be a janitor for most of your life and win the lottery.”

Gibney is directing a new Internet series for The New Yorker and Amazon, the giant online shopping enterprise that also produces shows now. He calls this project an attempt to bring the spirit of the New Yorker to cyberspace.

In the past you have said that the best documentaries are made for the long term, that they say something important. Which of your films have done that?

“Well, I hope many of them do. I mean, you look at a film like ‘Taxi To The Dark Side,’ it will hold up pretty well. It still has a lot to say about the power and the lies that politicians tell us, and also how we take advantage of our soldiers on the ground. A lot of my films deal with power and the abuse of power and the psychology of that. I always believed that you can’t really stop crime unless you understand the criminal.”

As to Gibney’s preference to make documentaries instead of regular feature films, he said he started in the latter realm and his production company has a few such projects, but he loves documentary work more.

“I think one of the things that’s important to me in making a documentary,” he said, “is that I get paid to learn.”

Reuters