A British Cult of Personality takes on the Cult of Scientology

(image courtesy of Magnolia pictures)

The British television journalist Louis Theroux first presented himself to audiences in the mid-1990s on Michael Moore’s Emmy Award–winning show “TV Nation.” With his overcorrected posture and unblinking gaze, the Oxford graduate confronted Ku Klux Klan members with polite questions and happily endured the awkwardness that followed. In one episode, Theroux meets the K.K.K.’s national director, Thomas Robb, who is trying to rebrand his group’s racism as nationalism. “Do you hate being called a hate group?” Theroux asks.

Later, he picks up a branded cigarette lighter, commenting, “This could be handy for cross burnings.” His interviewee fumbles, “No, that’s not cool...you can’t use a lighter for a cross burning, you have to use a torch…. [That would be too] tacky.”

Mundane details such as these pepper Theroux’s later documentaries, all the while revealing the peculiar logic of his subjects. Today Theroux is one of the U.K.’s best-loved documentarians, having produced dozens of series for the BBC. All of his works capitalize on his willingness to throw himself into strange situations, in which he flounders socially while affably drawing his interviewees into conversation.

In his latest documentary, “My Scientology Movie,” Theroux continues his career-long fascination with religion in the United States. He wrote in The Guardian that “[the Church of Scientology] is a gold-plated example of something I’ve tried to make a central theme in my documentaries: well-meaning people making decisions that might look bizarre to the outsider, but making them for very relatable human reasons.”

In some ways, the film is utterly unlike his previous work. While most of his documentaries present Theroux embroiled in the day-to-day life of his subjects, this film shows us what happens when he is denied such access. The Church of Scientology is notoriously secretive, and it made no exception for “My Scientology Movie.” His attempts to gain access to the church even led Scientologists to set their own cameramen on Theroux, taunting him that they were making a documentary too.

His attempts to gain access to the church even led Scientologists to set their own cameramen on Theroux, taunting him that they were making a documentary too.

Although he is prototypically British, Theroux is actually part of a starry U.S. family; his father is author Paul Theroux and his cousin, actor Justin Theroux, is married to Jennifer Aniston. Theroux’s subjects have consistently been American, too, although his audience largely resides in the U.K. He followed up “TV Nation” with “Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends” in the late 1990s. That show, which ran for three seasons, explored U.S. subcultures such as wrestling leagues, “swingers” and televangelism, with Theroux positioned gamely at the helm. (In the episode on wrestling Theroux tactfully complies with a disgruntled coach who, in trying to prove the stringency of his sport, demands that Theroux run drills until he vomits on camera.)

As his career has progressed there have been fewer embarrassments for Theroux and more sober subject matter, though his sense of humor remains. Of his best-known works, “The Most Hated Family in America” (2007) provides a surprisingly compassionate look at the Westboro Baptist Church. His most-lauded film, “When Louis Met Jimmy” (2000), discloses the bizarre lifestyle of British broadcaster Jimmy Savile, who was posthumously revealed to be a prolific pedophile.

As with his mentor, Moore, Theroux’s style as a documentarian relies on both his persona and his willingness to get his hands dirty. While Moore is eager to make theater by performing protest stunts to great effect, Theroux tends to be quieter, gentler. Yet he is by no means spineless. In fact, Theroux does something that is arguably more difficult: he consistently positions himself alongside his subjects, no matter how unapproachable or detestable they may seem. His humility invites complexity, helping his interviewees to open up in spite of any contention between the two of them.

In response to Theroux’s critical questioning, for example, Savile responded in the spirit of collaboration: “I’m odd. You’re different. That’s not a bad double. Between us we should be able to do something.” Theroux’s disarming likeability has cemented his cult status in the U.K., where memes such as “No Context Louis” rejoice in quoting him out of context and asserting his relatability. His face is emblazoned on T-shirts proclaiming “You Gotta Get Theroux This.”

In “My Scientology Movie,” the few Scientologists Theroux meets are impervious to his charms, and he does not get the chance to investigate the church’s dogma in much depth. This leads him to focus on the abuse of Scientologists by their church superiors. In doing so he practices both solidarity and more traditional, investigative journalism (albeit in his own style). A subject of particular fascination is the elusive longtime Scientology leader David Miscavige, who Theroux describes as a pope who has “hijacked” his church. With no hope of reaching Miscavige, who last accepted an interview request in 1998, Theroux responds by re-enacting Scientologist practices with the help of defected church member Marty Rathbun, whom he also interrogates.

“Do you think my questions are inane?” Theroux asks Rathbun as they drive together around Los Angeles. Theroux, whose sweet spot is the awkward silence, is in his element in this scenario, wearing Rathbun down with small talk. Finally Rathbun snaps, demanding to be asked something “interesting.” Theroux seizes the opportunity with a shrewd, daring question.

Out of so little, Theroux manages to tease out an interesting and inevitably incomplete portrait of the Church of Scientology—its hierarchy, its secrecy and many of its practices. The film is, in a way, a first for Theroux, since his gawky charisma is not what drives the show. It is his improvisation with re-enactment, along with years of research, that makes the film. This feat of creative, incisive journalism is perhaps even more captivating than the film’s subject. “My Scientology Move” allows us to see Theroux unfurl a controversial American enigma against all the odds, always striving for compassion—even when it seems impossible.

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