"Are you making a documentary as well?" Louis Theroux asks the mysterious cameraman who has just appeared outside of his Los Angeles base and started recording his every move. It's a simple question, but it really couldn't sum up My Scientology Movie any better. The British broadcaster isn't all that surprised that he's being followed and filmed —in fact, when he put out an open call on Twitter seeking information for his latest movie, he was warned that it might happen. The organisation established by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard and long-associated with Tom Cruise isn't known for being fond of scrutiny, after all.
Theroux himself adopts a different approach: if you can't film 'em, pretend to join 'em. That could be why the Church of Scientology isn't too pleased about his movie. After Theroux's requests to interview head honchos are either ignored or rejected, and his attempts to gain access to their LA headquarters rebuffed, the filmmaker teams up with disgruntled former church bigwig Mark "Marty" Rathbun and decides to get a little creative. Keen to understand what it's really like to believe in thetans, Xenu, auditing and dianetics, he turns to actors to play current leader David Miscavige and even the couch-jumping Cruise in a series of recreations.
What follows is a somewhat humorous, somewhat disturbing chronicle of a journalist pursuing a story while he himself is being pursued, interspersed with approximated scenes featuring the kind of unsettling behaviour that helped inspire Theroux's investigation in the first place. In light of the former, the outlandish nature of the latter won't shock anyone — particularly those who have seen Alex Gibney's recent Scientology expose Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, or even Paul Thomas Anderson's thinly-veiled fictional effort The Master.
Not knowing whether to laugh or just stare at the screen with your jaw agape is an understandable reaction — helming docos about everything from evangelist Christians and Indian gurus to neo-Nazis and sex offenders has clearly prepared Theroux well. Here, the veteran filmmaker brings his own unique twist to the re-staging techniques that proved so effective in Joshua Oppenheimer's brutal Indonesian genocide documentary The Act of Killing.
But My Scientology Movie is more than just a curio fuelled by curiosity. As strange as they sometimes are, every scene helps build a probing portrait of the psychology behind Scientology. Recollections offered by Rathbun and other Church defectors help, but there's nothing quite like seeing the reality, or at least a recreation of it. Showing rather than telling suits both Theroux and his chosen subject well, and makes for a bizarre, funny and downright fascinating final product.