Literary Science Fiction fandom has long had a slightly wry and embarrased relationship with the Church of Scientology. After all, it's found L Ron Hubbard cut his teeth as a writer for the pulps, and when I was growing up it wasn't uncommon to find his books on the shelves of the local library's SF&F section. I even read a load of them - and yes, even then I knew they were pretty terrible. At University, the SF&F Society got a steady stream of leaflets and so on from them, although we never really worked out if some previous members are registered with them for real or for a joke. But certainly in the circles we moved in, it was a joke, and its still slightly strange to me that out in the real world Scientology is a serious, and slightly sinister thing. The Church has a reputation for being extremely litigious and aggressive and controlling, and it's this side of the church that new documentary Going Clear aims to address.
A couple of good examples illustrate Scientology's attiude to Alex Gibney's documenary. First, if you google the film the top hit is a paid-for link to a site attacking it as propaganda. Second, as you watch the film frequent disclaimers and denials pop up on the screen, refuting or rejecting the allegations made by it's contributors, most of whom are ex-members from some pretty senior positions. The Church is probably right to be nervous about Going Clear, however, as it exposes them on their two weak fronts - first to ridicule, and then to fear.
Structurally, Going Clear follows a linear timeline from the emergance of Hubbard as a writer in the 1940s and 50s, to his creation of "Dianetics" - a sort of self-help program built around the idea that bad memories or "engrams" sort of lurk around your higher functioning self, stopping you being all you can be. This gradually morphs into a more religious structure, with ranked progression, which reminded me as much of modern "gamification" as anything else. The oft quoted comment from Hubbard that if you wanted to get rich, you should start a religion, is trotted out again, something that is either slightly apocraphal or he said a lot, to several different sources.
At this point, and as the documentary talks about the Churchs secret beleifs about ancient alien souls in volcanos, and spaceships that look like DC-8 airlines, and so on, it all comes across as pretty silly, albeit the sort of silly that some people clearly found something in. Hubbard becomes more and more reclusive (for Tax Reasons, it seems) and the Church goes to war with the US Revenue Service to be recognised as a Church and shield itself behind the First Ammendment, but then the film pivots away from the wacky inner beleifs of the church and towards the human damage is does as a full-blown cult.
This second section is a far cry from the troubled, wierd, but ultimately probably not a big deal life of L Ron Hubbard. Here serious accusations fly, about abuse, about persecution, and about dark dealings at the heart of the Church. Interestingly it doesn't mention one of the more persistant allegations about the churches current leader, which I guess couldn't get past some already overworked lawyers for HBO. What's there is bad enough; painting the church as a dangerous cult that breaks up families, brainwashes it's adherents, and ruthlessly works to destroy those that become apostate. It's striking stuff.
In the final analysis, Going Clear is clearly a hostile documenatary to the Church of Scientology and many - although by no means all - of it's allegations come from self-confessed losers of internal power battles. Even with that in mind, it paints a daming portrait of life inside the Church, and exposes many of it's workings - and prominent celebrity supporters - to to either hard questions, or ridicule, or both. It's tone remains measured, and factual, avoiding polemic or hyperbole, and it's really fascinating, including a lot of new material, smartly delivered. Well worth checking out.