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HBO’s New Scientology Documentary Causes a Stir at LACMA Screening

The elucidating HBO documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” screened at the LACMA Bing Theater on Monday night, followed by a colorful Q&A session with Alex Gibney (Oscar-winning filmmaker of HBO’s “Taxi to the Dark Side”) and author Lawrence Wright.

The anticipated film, based on Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Going Clear,” not only educates on the history and practices of the Church of Scientology, but also profiles eight former members of the church, affording an inside look into how controversial decisions are rationalized and true believers of the movement are molded.

Why would someone support the Church of Scientology if they’ve witnessed terrible actions, or acted as an aggressor? What does it take for a person to reach his or her breaking point? Why is it so easy to recognize unsavory behavior in retrospect, but in the moment, to feel vindicated?

Sometimes stated aloud, and other times suggested with subtext, the two-hour-long documentary grapples with these fundamental questions throughout a series of interviews.

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One former member, Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, who was in attendance, shares her heartbreaking and inspiring story in the film. After years of dedication to the church, which she joined as a teenager, Taylor was sentenced to its disciplinary program, the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), in 1977. She was crammed into overcrowded quarters, forced to sleep on a soggy mattress outside, and had her new baby daughter taken away from her before she escaped and left the church. Now, years later, she has the chance to reflect on her experience.

“I’m just grateful that I realized missteps and got out, and got my children out, so we could have a life,” Taylor told Variety. “What happened to me… it was dreadful, and yet it happens every day, still, right now.”

The documentary explains that part of the reason the church is still flourishing financially, despite diminishing numbers in the congregation, is that the IRS deems the operating bodies tax-exempt on the grounds that Scientology is a religion. Director Gibney (who previously explored sex abuse in the Catholic church in HBO’s “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”) expressed his hope that, as a result of this film, the IRS exemption is re-examined and that the celebrity members of the congregation — like John Travolta and Tom Cruise — recognize the corruption, and hold the church accountable.

Wright echoed Gibney’s call to action for celebrities to step up. He emphasized that he has no intention of attacking Scientology’s beliefs, only in examining any human rights abuses that the church commits.

“If it’s true that Tom Cruise, for instance, is the number-one salesman for Scientology, then he has a moral responsibility,” said Gibney, asserting that Cruise’s celebrity status brings in myriad converts. “I think it’s time for him to demand an accounting inside the church he apparently cherishes. If he wants to see it survive, I think it would be worth having him demand a change.”

A far less silent audience is the church, which Gibney noted has reacted to the documentary by denouncing everything the film claims.

“How is it that any critic who says anything about the Church of Scientology is automatically wrong, a liar, an apostate?” he questioned. “Is there nothing that the church has ever done wrong?”

Wright said that, while he’s faced numerous legal threats from the church over the years, the struggles he’s had to overcome in order to report on the church hardly compare to the hardships endured by its members, and he praised the courage of people like Spanky Taylor, who left the congregation and chose to speak publicly about their experiences.

And as for what will become of the church following the documentary, Wright noted, “This is going to be a moment of truth for them and for us.”

“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” will premiere on HBO March 29 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

(Pictured: Author Lawrence Wright, writer-director Alex Gibney and Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell at the panel discussion of HBO Documentary Films’ “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” at Bing Theater at LACMA)

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