Louis Theroux outside the Church of Scientology building in Los Angeles
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Scientology is fair game for documentary makers, which may explain why none of them has killed it off. They need it as hunters need prey. Without the species — L. Ron Hubbard and his famous, for some infamous, religious group — what would happen to the season?

Scientology. Think of it as a prize boar that is never a prize bore. We love to chase it; we try to chase it down; yet we’re fascinated by its eluding, evading impudence. As if aware that Alex Gibney’s 2015 documentary about the Dianetics gang, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, rumbling its bellyful of damning facts, was a hard act to follow — while still not delivering the death blow — British docu-sleuth Louis Theroux tries the playful approach. In My Scientology Movie he goes to California, rounds up a band of wannabe actors and workshops them in recreations of infamous sect techniques for brainwashing or infamous incidents of browbeating and persecution. (The young actors playing Tom Cruise and David Miscavige, Scientology’s head since Hubbard’s death, are dead ringers.)

Theroux’s on-hand expert, doubling as dramaturge and drama coach, is Hubbard defector Marty Rathbun. He is a garrulous, excitable fellow; which may explain why he keeps losing his temper. Geeky-featured Louis, we all know, is a pseudo-simpleton who stands there asking “naive” questions. They provoke the innocent and enrage the guilty. Rathbun’s past as a top Hubbardite, an “Inspector General” forsooth, triggers two or three Rathbun tantrums. For better drama still — moving on — there are confrontations with real camera-wielding snoops sent from Hubbard HQ (one assumes) to doorstep Louis’s production venues. When he complains about their surveillance, a girl snoop complains that he is harassing her. Louis: “You’re filming me! How can I be harassing you?”

The movie goes nowhere, you might adjudge by the end, if you’re harsh. But it has a lot of informed and informative fun going nowhere. And perhaps a going-nowhere documentary is the proper answer to a malignant, hypocritical religious institution — tax-exempt in its native US, of course — that creates its own Lewis Carroll itineraries for taking believers from Point A to Point A while convincing them they’re travelling a whole alphabet of growth and enlightenment.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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