Alex Gibney’s recent Sundance documentary Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief was the talk of Park City and has arrived in Berlin.

International sales agent Content Media is screening the film on February 5 at 3.15pm at CineStar 6 and February 7 at 4.45pm at CineStar 6. Tiffany Pritchard speaks to the Oscar winner.

For someone who has made a career out of pushing boundaries, Oscar winner Alex Gibney may just have delivered his most talked-about documentary to date.

The film adopts a similar structure to Lawrence Wright’s 2013 bestseller Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood And The Prison Of Belief, focusing on eight people who broke away from the grip of the Scientology community and their difficult, often troubling, stories that resulted.

As the title of both film and book suggests, ‘The Prison Of Belief’ is what Gibney and Wright refer to as the boxed-in walls that confine a person into believing what they are told. It is, as Gibney puts it, “that ‘terrifying certainty of faith’ that gives comfort in not having to ask the tough questions everyday.”

We meet at a Park City coffee shop the morning after the Sundance world premiere at The Marc. Rather than the imposing personality you might expect from someone with such strong convictions, Gibney is grounded and shares his thoughts calmly and quietly.

Pleased with the overwhelming response from the premiere, the film-maker appeared more than willing to discuss the film.  

When he read Wright’s tome two years ago Gibney, who enjoys a long-standing working relationship with the Austin-based author, felt compelled to research the backstories of these eight former church members – to dig deep and unveil how intelligent people get involved in such belief systems.

Rather than spend time documenting the history of Scientology, the director instead wanted to give the subjects a platform to not only talk about why they decided to leave the organisation but, perhaps more importantly, why they got in.

Investigating the path into Scientology

“There is a lot of interest in the wild side of Scientology – the intriguing Xenu the Galactic Overlord and other L Ron Hubbard science fiction creations,” says Gibney. “But I wanted to shed light on the other side – I wanted to better explain what members get from [Scientology] in the beginning and then you can understand their path as a human being. It’s not so disconnected.”

The documentary threads its narrative through testimonials from former Scientologists including perhaps the most famous of them all, the film-maker Paul Haggis, as well as Mark ‘Marty’ Rathbun (previously the second-highest ranking official in the Church Of Scientology) and Mike Rinder (former executive in the Church Of Scientology International and the Sea Organisation).

To this point the church lashed out, claiming some interviews in the film were with “obsessive, disgruntled former Church members kicked out as long as 30 years ago for malfeasance, who have a documented history of making up lies about the Church for money.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gibney has an opinion on claim. “It seems to me they are trying to smear people’s reputations that were in the film - a sort of modus operandi. They have focused a lot on Marty [Rathbun] and Mike [Rinder]. Both have been honest about their misdeeds. And the irony is that these misdeeds were done during their time at the Church Of Scientology. The reason they left is because they were ashamed. They say in their testimonials - it is their blind faith to the Church Of Scientology that caused them to do these things.”

Others who spoke on film include Sylvia ‘Spanky’ Taylor, who was once friend and Scientology liaison to John Travolta, as well as the actor Jason Beghe and former church members Hana Eltringham Whitfield and Sara Goldberg.

Working closely with Wright and his researcher Lauren Wolf as well as his own producer Kristen Vaurio, Gibney and his small team pushed for archive footage and interview access to Scientology leader David Miscavige, Tom Cruise, Travolta, Nicole Kidman and Katie Holmes.

On the footage side they dug up gems from obscure corners of the internet and an impressive black-and-white Granada interview with Hubbard from film stock found in a basement.

Interviewing high-ranking church officials or celebrity members or former members was harder.

“We tried repeatedly to gain access – we either got an outright ‘No’ or they just wouldn’t get back to us. I even gave Tom Cruise’s reps a list of questions explaining what we were trying to do. As such a public figurehead for the organisation, it makes you wonder why he wouldn’t speak,” says Gibney.

The director refers to the digging as a ‘fishing exercise’, adding that most celebrities don’t expose themselves to objective questioning. “I would say truth is not always their goal.”

The church’s vocal objections to the film

The church was not happy, taking out ads to register its disapproval of Gibney’s documentary and contacting critics who had not reached out to the church for its side of the story before posting their reviews.

“I find it bizarre they are contacting film critics,” he says. “Normally film critics have no obligation to speak with organisations about a review This shows the fanaticism of the church. I keep mentioning: we specifically requested intervies with various peopple — including current church members and officials — who could shed light on specific incidents discussed in the film. All of those asked either declined, did not respond or set unreasinable conditions.

“We also asked if there were new documents that we could look over, in additions to the documents that were sent to Lawrence Wright when he was writing the book. We wanted to look over any kind of new information that sheds light on the church’s aims, or gives some information on what they think is important. They never responded to any of these requests.”

Gibney says the church’s recent ad during Super Bowl helped his cause. “I think this their way of trying to stand tall in the face of criticism. They don’t realise this is giving more attention to the film - it’s hard to pay for this kind of publicity.”

Of his eight subjects, only Goldberg was not featured in Wright’s book. But all, with a bit of convincing – particularly recent defector Paul Haggis – were ultimately willing to share their experiences on camera.

“It’s a lonely path when you go out [from the organisation] and suddenly all your friends back away from you. There is not a lot of respect when it comes to differing opinions to the church.”

“But most want to open up,” the director continues. “The hard part is making sure you gain their trust by honouring their stories. When I approached potential subjects, I emphasised we would portray them with utmost empathy.”

Maintaining the narrative thread

Condensing 453 pages into a two-hour film was not easy. A significant amount of footage got left out, which Gibney admits is always difficult although he insists the integrity of the narrative is paramount.

That proved to be challenging when Gibney and his editor Andy Grieve, with whom he had collaborated on The Armstrong Lie and We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks, sought ways to keep the story moving forward while intercutting an explanation of Scientology and its backstory.

“When we come back from the field, we often have many different types of materials, so it becomes a challenging job to work out how the narrative progresses both visually and aurally.”

As in the book, the film addresses the abuse encountered by both existing and former members, the exile of ‘suppressive persons’ (SPs) and the resulting split of their families, the church’s tax-exemption status and its increased wealth from real estate investment.

Perhaps most fascinating to many viewers at the Sundance world premiere was something not mentioned in the book: the cover-up of Cruise’s relationship with Nazanin Boniadi [the Iranian-British actress who was vetted by the church as a possible wife for Cruise] by confiscating evidence from her mother’s house and the organisation’s involvement in breaking up Cruise and Kidman through wire-tapping.

Gibney himself is still shocked by these discoveries, which Rathbun (who was responsible for protection of Dianetics and Scientology copyrights) divulges in his testimonial in the film.

“It’s incredible and hard to believe,” says Gibney. “But when we receive information such as this, we rigorously cross check references through both print materials and by speaking to many other people.”

The film-maker hopes one day Kidman and Holmes will open up about their own experiences with Scientology; particularly Kidman, who was deemed an ‘SP’ and ostrasised from her two children by Cruise, Bella and Connor.

The aspect of tearing children away from their families horrifies Gibney. In addition to Kidman, Taylor (referred to as ‘Spanky’) poignantly reveals her experience of being holed up in a dingy room as retribution for straying from the church, while her newborn was crammed in a room described as “unsanitary”.

A surprise on-stage appearance

Taylor and her daughter, who is now grown up, reduced many in the audience to tears when they surprised everyone by walking on stage at the film’s world premiere at The Marc.

“This film has been an emotional experience for everyone involved, not least of all those that bravely shared their stories to camera. These people have paid a heavy price. But I also think, for many, it has been cathartic and maybe even a relief to finally bring these dark secrets out into the open.”

Gibney attributes shame and guilt to many still involved with the organisation – referencing Travolta as one example – or those that remain behind closed doors.

“The hardest thing in life is often admitting you made a terrible mistake. To openly confront this is very, very tough,” says Gibney.

The director is glad the film is finally out. “It will hopefully be that agent provocateur – giving others the confidence to speak out – or a push for the government to again start looking into the organisation’s emotional and physical abuses – or continued support from Oregon Senator [Ron] Wyden to get the Internal Revenue Service to re-examine their tax-exemption status.”

He continues: “I hope it can now reverberate. All these masses of people signing NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] to prevent these injustices from becoming public knowledge is not right and just outright creepy.”

US broadcaster HBO, one of the investors in Going Clear, is said to have amassed a team of ‘160 attorneys’ – a figure Gibney believes to be slightly exaggerated – to stave off the notorious Scientology members known to employ scare tactics.

“The church tries to get inside your head. The best advice I had from a former member is to simply ignore them – just don’t let them in.” As of yet, he alleges he is not aware of any suspect behavior directed towards him or his staff.  

Gibney credits HBO for “defending the film in all sorts of ways – editorially, legally and financially.” The premium cable company put up a significant portion of the budget along with BSkyB in the UK (who took an equity stake) and Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions, which is part-owned by Going Clear’s international sales agent Content Media.

Upcoming projects

Gibney remains tight-lipped about his upcoming projects, explaining his new rule is to wait until a film is officially announced, otherwise he “loses the fire.”  However, it is known he has started work on producing documentaries Return To Timbuktu and Janis: Little Girl Blue.

His immediate plan is to remain loyal to the film in efforts to push its overriding message to the public – the best way of fighting back is to speak out.

Equating Scientology to all sorts of other belief systems – from large corporations to political ideologies – Gibney contends you don’t have stray too far from your own echo chambers to find groups that want to do the thinking for you.

As a lapsed Catholic, even he admits to finding it tough to break the hard-wiring of forcefully identified associations. 

  • Going Clear will screen again at Sundance on January 31 and February 1. Content handles international sales. HBO has targeted a March 16 US air date.