By Paris Spence-Lang
VANCOUVER — Scientology sits in a precarious position. The mysterious religion is many things, including a powerful self-help tool, a transparent cash-grab, and a bizarre cult. But how could these three “founding principles” of Scientology co-exist? Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief quickly constructs an answer for each: founder L. Ron Hubbard was at the same time earnestly brilliant, incredibly greedy and batshit crazy. This not only makes for an interesting religion, but a fantastic documentary, and Going Clear lives up to the expectations set by decades of rumour-mill mythology.
The story starts with L. Ron Hubbard, who before becoming a big-talking messiah had the appropriate career choice of science-fiction writer. As he was paid per word, Hubbard became a prolific typist who managed to crank out 1,084 books, earning himself four Guinness World Records in the process. He would go on to sell over 250 million copies, including over 80 million copies for his masterpiece, Dianetics.
Going Clear goes on to share some of Hubbard’s other notable acts, such as shelling a floating log in WWII (it looked like the Germans!), telling his wife he butchered their daughter (not true—she was only locked up in a cage), and making today’s equivalent of a billion dollars. But the film also shows that Hubbard may not have been the blowhard conman he seemed—instead of taking the money and running, the man realized he had his own demons and tellingly spent much of his time using his church’s methods to fix himself. In the end, Hubbard himself was just as imperfect as his followers—in Scientology terms, he never went “clear”.
Aside from its exposé on its founder, Going Clear answers all the questions we’ve ever had about Scientology: “Who actually believes in this stuff?” “Where do the celebrities come from?” “When are the aliens coming back?” But Scientology isn’t just a quirky organization intended to be the butt of jokes; unlike the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it has a much darker side. In fact, Going Clear makes a case for it as a prison, complete with its own set of yardhouse rules, daring escapes, and outright violence.
As the viewer hears former Scientologists speak candidly about their experiences, a subtext appears that hints the biggest tragedy of Scientology is not that it exists, but that a better, cleaner version of it does not exist. If it had been founded solely under the principles of making the world a better place (John Travolta at one point mentions that the purpose of Scientology is to free the world of crime and fill it with joy, and credits it with his acting career) instead of making money for its founder or brainwashing its followers, then perhaps it could actually make a positive impact on the earth.
Instead, the doctrines, like every other aspect of the religion, go too far. One former Scientologist who achieved one of the highest ranks and was given the “secrets of the universe” (you know, the stuff about humans being placed in volcanoes by aliens and blown up with hydrogen bombs) put this disconnect very bluntly: “I’m down for the self-help stuff, like going clear… but what the fuck is this?”
Director Alex Gibney has done a masterful job of turning something so convoluted into something, well, clear. The viewer is taken through a seamless tale of the school-cum-cult-cum-business-cum-madhouse that is Scientology, and finally gets an answer to that question: “What the hell is it all about?” And with that information, the viewer can be satisfied… at least until Galactic Confederacy dictator Xenu arrives and explains the rest.
Going Clear is screening on June 6th and 11th at the Vancity Theatre.BC, British Columbia, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Scientology, Vancity Theatre