Top of the Docs #5 – ‘Going Clear’ (2015): Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Journalistic Documentary

In terms of mainstream documentary filmmaking over the past two decades, few figures have amassed as impressive a body of work as Alex Gibney. His documentaries often tackle corporate scandal, usually interrogating single corporations such as in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005). However, he is a very versatile filmmaker, also dabbling in biographies and war documentaries. One of his most interesting and most controversial films is 2015’s Going Clear, a film that dives deep into one of the most secretive and fascinating organisations Gibney has ever tackled – the Church of Scientology.

Going Clear is a film that pulls no punches and understands the great lengths to which the Church will go to undermine its discoveries. Through this understanding, Gibney roots the film in historical fact, seeking out those who have been members of the Church during various periods of its existence. The main goal of the documentary is to uncover how the Church has convinced the world of its status as a religion, despite strong evidence of it acting merely as a tax avoidance scheme.

The film tracks the history of the Church, from its foundation under L. Ron Hubbard, to its current form as a de facto corporation. Taking us on this journey are many of those who have escaped the ‘clutches’ of the Church, exposing the exploitative and often abusive tactics they use in order to keep secrets and enforce their beliefs. The film also looks at the history of the Church’s infamously unnerving Sea Organisation, which dates back to the days that the Church was based at sea in order to avoid paying tax.

It is true that Going Clear is not the first, nor the last documentary about Scientology, and the Church attempted to block Gibney every step of the way. However, Going Clear comes out as perhaps the most comprehensive takedown of the church through Gibney’s use of journalistic techniques; he treats the film as though it is an important article, and delivers its information in exactly the same way. The film takes us chronologically through the history of the Church and its exploitation, and uses the evidence it finds to poke holes in its current regime, leaving the viewer wondering how they could ever get away with what they do. To amass this evidence, the film uses sources such as filmmaker Paul Haggis, and John Travolta’s former liaison Sylvia Taylor.

Alex Gibney as a filmmaker has always proved to be a reliably interesting figure. Though his films aren’t the most visually or formally daring, they often explore difficult topics, in detail that others would fear to delve into. His films feel almost prosaic, like reading a biting, interesting, and exposing article about some of the world’s biggest open secrets. Going Clear takes this style and allows him to challenge himself by exploring a topic that provides as much controversy as it does interest. The result is a work that shines a light on years of institutional abuse and a paranoid corporation deluded by its own beliefs.

Trailer for Going Clear