Sydney Film Festival Reviewed

We reviewed some of the most buzzed films at this year's festival, including 'Dope', 'Ruben Guthrie', 'Gayby Baby' and 'Holding The Man'. Many were excellent. Some were not.

The Film That Will Make You Stop Joking About Cults, And Thank The Master You Aren’t In One:


Going Clear: Scientology And the Prison Of Belief, dir. Alex Gibney

Starring: Tom Cruise, John Travolta (haha, not really)

Reviewed by: Matt Roden

The pre-festival hype surrounding Going Clear was interesting – there were rumours that Scientologists would protest the film and its director, and a general sense that a pernicious false idol might be torn down for a hungry crowd of intelligentsia. The film itself delivers exactly what you’d assume: it’s the biopic of cult leading egotist L. Ron Hubbard (you know, the film that we all thought Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was going to be). It’s a tabloid-esque dirt dig on John Travolta and Tom Cruise that swerves from the surreal to the schadenfreudist, as we dig into their luxury-locked insecurities and alleged proclivities. And it’s a talking heads-and-archival footage step-by-step analysis of just how a mish mash of therapeutic counselling sessions, pulp sci-fi nonsense, and gamified capitalist spirituality could become an all-powerful, ever-threatening presence in the lives of thousands.

If you’ve read Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, or even the extract in the New Yorker, you won’t find too much new material here. By this stage even those with a passing interest know about e-meters and thetans and the distancing of families. What it lacks in original detail it makes up for in the power of repetition (a lot of people went through the same trauma), and the emotive resonance of seeing the church’s survivors and reformed enforcers. It is enlightening to hear from a few of the church’s old guard, who now live with a quiet guilty reserve; these are men (mostly) who clearly know the emotional, mental, and financial damage they’ve reaped on ‘believers’, all in the name of continuing the church and squishing any negative reports that might emerge. They don’t say sorry until the film’s final moments, but you can see it in their sad faces throughout.

Going Clear isn’t much of a cinematic experience, and you won’t be missing anything by watching it in instalments at home. You might, however, not wish to welcome into your living space such negative energies. There are by all accounts people out there who live happily and sanely practicing the ways of L.R.H.: Beck is one, so is Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss. But the fact that so many people have come forward with stories of abuse and manipulation, from a religion that claims to be centred around peace, is disturbing on a level that far outweighs the giggly in-closet gossiping and goofy alien allegories that Scientology might have previously inspired. Going Clear is a good place to begin parting the mists on the deeply strange and creepy institution. Maybe with enough people watching it, we’ll start to learn more.

For fans of: Cult conspiracies, Hollywood gossip, feeling righteously indignant that bad people can get away with bad things under the guise of religion.

Opening in Australia: In cinemas now.

Want to go back to the beginning? Click here.

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