Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

10 things we learned from the documentary's screening and Q&A

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Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s latest documentary—an up-close examination of Scientology, its practices and the controversies that surround the religion founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. It’s also a stirring portrait of eight former adherents, who tell their stories of how they came to practice Scientology and their reasons for leaving the church.

On Monday, March 9, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Film Independent organization hosted a preview screening of Going Clear, which opened in limited release this week, and debuts on HBO starting on March 29. Gibney (pictured above, center) and Lawrence Wright (above, far left), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote the New Yorker article and the book on which the film is based, were both on hand for the event.

While much of the ideological content in Gibney’s film has circulated on the Internet for years, there were still a number of items to be learned from watching the film and hearing from the men who made it. Here are 10 memorable moments from the event:

1. Alex Gibney still has a sense of humor.

Although director Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) has faced blowback and threats from his film, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor. His wry line during the film’s introduction got a big laugh from the packed house: “I’m delighted to show this film about Scientology in Los Angeles.”

2. L. Ron Hubbard is a Guinness World Record holder.

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was a prolific writer of pulp fiction and science fiction. He still holds the Guinness World Record for most published works (1,084). He was first published in 1934 and then posthumously in 2006.

3. Now that’s a long-term contract.

The Sea Organization is a fraternal order of dedicated Scientologists, who have committed to volunteer service for their religion. Established in 1967, and once operated from a private fleet of ships, the organization requires that members sign a billion-year contract when joining.

4. Scientology takes on “We are the World.”

One of the more interesting scenes in the film features a “We are the World”-type music video, circa 1990, that includes the singing talents of the upper echelon of Scientology, including current church leader David Miscavige and former top-ranking officials Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun, both of whom are featured subjects in Going Clear.

5. Truth and consequences

“The people [in the film] knew the consequences of their testimony,” said Wright, author of the slightly different titled book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief. “They were going to pay a price.” (Just Google any of the film’s subjects and the first item that pops up is a paid ad from Scientology’s Freedom magazine leading to video exposés titled, “Mike Rinder: The Wife Beater” or “Marty Rathbun: A Violent Psychopath.”)

6. Lawrence owes the church a deal of gratitude, too.

When Wright was working on his New Yorker piece, “The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology,” the first round of fact-checking used six checkers working over six months and sent the church 970 queries. He received 47 volumes of material in return. “I have to credit the church for giving me the book.”

7. On the appeal of making this film

While Going Clear is part exposé and part condemnation of a controversial religion, director Gibney said that he was most interested in “the journey of the key characters in the film … and how people got lost in the ‘prison of belief.’”

8. The true American religion?

It’s no secret that Scientology boasts a number of high-powered supporters, and Gibney said that church leader David Miscavige is “infatuated with celebrity.” He also noted that Los Angeles is the perfect place for the crossover between celebrity and spirituality: “[There’s] one thing that Americans really do worship, which is celebrity.”

9. On auditing

Gibney called the practice of auditing—a form of spiritual counseling—as “the Scientology version of therapy,” which is an interesting analogy since Scientology has long been opposed to psychiatry. In archival interview footage with founder L. Ron Hubbard, he claims, “We have nothing to do with the insane whatsoever.”

10. What is “Fair Game?”

Gibney succinctly described the Scientology doctrine of “Fair Game,” in which the church applies punishment and harassment against its enemies, who are also called “Suppressive Persons.” Said the director, ”[It’s an] institution that says it’s fair game to go after them with everything you’ve got.”

Photo: Lawrence Wright, Alex Gibney and moderator Elvis Mitchell at the Film Independent at LACMA event on March 9, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo credit: Araya Diaz/WireImage)

Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.