Filmmaker Alex Gibney took the stage Sunday flanked by former Scientologists and journalist Lawrence Wright after “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” debuted to a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival.
The documentary is a broadside against the controversial religion. It argues that Scientology exploits its tax exempt status to amass millions of dollars in property and donations, behaving more like a business than a charity.
It also claims that the church mistreats its members, in some cases physically abusing them, and threatens and harasses those who leave the faith. Scientology’s reputation as a litigious organization has dissuaded former members from speaking publicly about their harassment and has prevented media from shining a light on its practices.
“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,” said Wright during a Q&A. “What I want to underscore is the tremendous amount of courage it took for people to come out.”
When asked if he had received any legal threats while making “Going Clear,” Gibney joked, “We have received many cards and letters.”
Gibney’s doc is based on Wright’s 2013 book of the same name, and he said he hoped that it would inspire more investigative reports of a similar nature.
“We hope that this film and Larry’s book will start the process where more media will say well we don’t care anymore,” said Gibney. “We’re going to pursue this no matter what.”
For its part, the church is denying the book and film’s claims.
In a statement, it says, “Their sources are the usual collection of obsessive, disgruntled former Church members kicked out as long as 30 years ago for malfeasance, who have a documented history of making up lies about the Church for money.”
Gibney said that Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon is pressing the IRS to review Scientology’s tax exempt status, but most of the people gathered onstage seemed skeptical that change would come from government agencies.
“If you are a U.S. Attorney or any form of prosecutor in the United States and you want to take on the Church of Scientology in a case like this, make it your career,” said Mike Rinder, a former senior executive in the Church of Scientology.
“There is a cost benefit analysis that every prosecutor and every overworked law enforcement agency goes through to decide are they going to devote enormous amounts of time and resouces to attempting to prosecute this sort of crime or are they going to get murderers off the streets,” he added.
Part of the issue is that members are so thoroughly influenced by the church’s teachings and by the aura of infallibility created around its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, that many people would rather endure abuse than leave the religion.
In some cases, the bond between believer and religion starts so early, it’s difficult to sever, said Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, a former church member.
“I particularly was really young and I had never read a book,” said Taylor. “I almost literally grew up thinking L. Ron Hubbard invented the wheel, so I had no idea what a charlatan he had been.”
“Going Clear” will air on HBO beginning on March 16. Rinder and other Scientology critics are hoping the doc will inspire calls for action.
“You change attitudes in society against abusive practices by raising public awareness, and ultimately it becomes something that everyone agrees something needs to be done about,” said Rinder.