IT’S the film the Church of Scientology doesn’t want you to see and represents the highest profile expose yet of the controversial organisation.
Eight former members feature in the documentary, sharing stories of their experiences that include allegations of physical abuse, forced isolation and brainwashing.
Mike Rinder spent virtually all of his life in the Church of Scientology and everyone he knew was a member, including his wife and two children, his mother, his brother and his sister.
From the age of six he was raised in the church, eventually rising to become its chief spokesman.
But after spending more than a year in a disciplinary facility known as “the hole” where he says he and other Scientology executives were confined, an increasingly disillusioned Rinder left the church in 2007.
It was while in that Los Angeles compound that Rinder, now 59, says he realised the church was “a road to hell” and that he had to get out, even if penniless and without his family.
“I literally walked away with a briefcase,” says Rinder, who now lives what he calls “an entirely new life” in Florida with a new wife, a son and a stepson.
Rinder’s story is one of eight from former church members that make up the emotional arc of the documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Beliefwhich opens in theatres in the US on Friday and will air on HBO at the end of the month.
It’s the highest-profile expose yet of the controversial religion founded by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard.
The film paints a disturbing portrait of Scientology, claiming physical abuse happens regularly and that the church drives wedges between families by labelling non-Scientologist spouses and parents “suppressive persons”.
The documentary also singles out several of Scientology’s most famous faces — including Tom Cruise and John Travolta — for not using their power to change the organisation.
The church has mounted a considerable campaign against the film, including full-page ads in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times and a series of internet videos.
The church derides the documentary’s sources as “bitter, vengeful apostates”. It also alleges Gibney didn’t present the film’s allegations for response and calls the film “a one-sided false diatribe”.
The church has also vigorously denied allegations of physical abuse or confinement. It has previously said that managers like Rinder were never held against their will, but were subject to “ecclesiastical discipline”.
The film’s director Alex Gibney and journalist Lawrence Wright, whose book the film is based on, spoke of Going Clear as empathetic toward those lured to the church, but critical of its enablers.
“We’re not attacking the beliefs of the church,” Wright said.
‘‘You can believe whatever you want to believe and that’s fine. It doesn’t matter if it’s crazy — there are a lot of crazy religions. It’s the practices and abuses that are going on in Scientology that I think the book and the film shed light on.”
Much of Going Clear depends on the testimony of former church members. They do so despite the likelihood of aggressive responses from the church.
The church’s Freedom Magazine has published harsh appraisals of those it terms “discredited sources.” Rinder is labelled “the lady killer.” Haggis is called “the Hollywood hypocrite.”
Gibney says private investigators have recently tailed several sources from the film.
Many also struggle with a sense of shame at having been members of a church they now speak against.
“I spent a lot of time on the idea of auditing because it’s a kind of talking cure,” Gibney says, referring to Scientology’s therapy-like practice.
“So the beginning of the film, people talk their way in. By the end, they talk their way out. Speaking out has become their way of not only leaving the church but helping others who might be suffering under the abuses. The idea of speaking out is fundamental to the film.”
Former members are seen in the film as sensible, curious people who only learn of the church’s more idiosyncratic beliefs and practices after years of indoctrination.
“Everything about Scientology isn’t bad,” Rinder said.
“It’s the boiling frog problem of you start with something, it seems kind of nice. You’re in the pot of water. It’s kind of cool in here. But the heat keeps turning up and turning up and turning up. And pretty soon you’re a boiled frog.”
Gibney and Wright are pushing for change on two fronts: that tax authorities in the US might reconsider its classification of Scientology, and that the church’s celebrity members act against the alleged abuses.
But they also hope that Going Clear will serve as, Wright says, “a bulwark against the kinds of intimidation that the church has launched in the past.”
“The goal was to get enough people that it emboldened others who would know they wouldn’t be in this alone,” Wright said.
“There was a lot of fear and a lot of tears in reporting this story.”