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Should Louis Theroux be worried? What a Scientology ‘documentary’ actually looks like

Louis_Theroux_thumbWe thought it was very smart of filmmaker Louis Theroux to tweet last week that Scientology’s attorneys have told him the church plans to make a documentary about him now that his own film about Scientology is in the can.

We’ve been telling you for some time that Louis and the BBC have been working on a documentary about Scientology. Theroux recently said publicly that his film is going to be very different from Alex Gibney’s super-successful HBO movie, Going Clear, which turned out to be one of the most-watched documentaries in HBO history.

We first talked to producer Simon Chinn about his ideas for a theatrically-released feature film about Scientology three years ago. He told us then that he wanted Louis Theroux for it, and then he hired skilled director John Dower. Since then, we’ve been kept a little in the dark about the contents of the film (except for some rather generic BBC publicity about it), but we have a guess about its focus. For now, we’re going to keep that to ourselves.

In the meantime, Theroux needs to differentiate his film from Going Clear and build excitement for it. His decision to tweet about Scientology making a documentary about him was pretty brilliant. It got a huge amount of press around the world, and seemed to get people very excited.

But we had another reaction: When doesn’t Scientology make a “documentary” about the people who do exposés about the church, at least in recent years?

It would actually be pretty unusual for Scientology not to film something about Theroux, given the effort he’s put into his project in recent months.


So what can Theroux expect? Well, let’s take a look at the historical record. It turns out that Scientology counter-documentaries have a pretty predictable look and feel, and narrative style — we’re not sure what to call it, except perhaps “smeary.”

There may be earlier examples, but the first time we remember hearing about a Scientology counter-documentary, it involved BBC journalist John Sweeney blowing his top.

It was 2007, and Sweeney made a documentary that was as much about him being followed around by Scientology’s private eyes as it was about Scientology itself. Appropriately, he titled it “Scientology and Me.” And most famously, Sweeney got into some hot water with his bosses because at one point he completely went ape on Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis. “YOU. WERE. NOT. THERE. AT. THE. BEGINNING. OF. THE. INTERVIEW.”

You remember. Anyway, what also made it memorable was that the entire time that Sweeney was filming Scientologists, they were filming him. And, seeing an opportunity to get Sweeney in some hot water, the church put out its own counter-documentary about Sweeney losing his cool, and generally trashed the BBC for what it perceived as bias. The result was a 20-minute video that, eight years later, plays like a trip down memory lane.


In 2010, Sweeney struck again, making a second film about Scientology that featured some of the former church officials who had defected and gone public in the meantime — specifically, former church spokesman Mike Rinder. Sweeney titled it “The Secrets of Scientology.” So Scientology made its own updated counter-documentary. (If you haven’t heard the claims about Rinder’s family confrontation before, make sure you look at his recent rebuttal of Scientology’s version of events.)


In 2009, Tom Tobin and Joe Childs of the St. Petersburg Times uncorked an unparalleled investigative series, “The Truth Rundown,” which featured a crop of former top-ranking Scientology officials who had recently defected from the church. Scientology’s reaction was to hit back with some screechy rants in its propaganda magazine, Freedom. But then, CNN’s Anderson Cooper picked up the story and in 2010 produced a four-part series that largely repeated the allegations that had been dug up by Tobin and Childs.

Cooper then became the subject of a special issue of Freedom, but once again Scientology leader David Miscavige also thought it was a good idea to counter Anderson’s widely-viewed series with a counter-documentary of his own. Sadly, the best thing he could come up with was to condemn Cooper for his “designer pants.”


Around the same time, former church official Mark “Marty” Rathbun resurfaced after his 2004 defection, and he began a blog that was highly critical of Miscavige. Scientology responded with heavy surveillance of Rathbun and his wife Monique from private investigators. Then, in 2011, things took a truly strange turn when the Rathbuns found their house under siege by a Scientology intimidation squad that called themselves the Squirrel Busters. When local officials asked the goon squad why it was parked outside the Rathbun house, day after day for five months, and followed the Rathbuns wherever they went, the Scientologists claimed that they were really watching the Rathbuns because they were “making a documentary.”

On the one hand, we laughed at that, knowing it was just a very unconvincing “cover story” for what was really an attempt by Scientology to make Rathbun’s life “a living hell,” as the squad’s leader said. But on the other hand, the crew did ultimately release a short film about Rathbun, and we thought the animation was really keen…


Rathbun had been in Sweeney’s 2010 film, and he was also in a Channel 4 documentary about his experiences as an outspoken former church official, Scientologists at War. And recently, he was one of the stars of Alex Gibney’s movie, Going Clear.

And Gibney, of course, also got the counter-documentary treatment. If you’re like us, you’ve been fed this or similar Scientology videos as ads on YouTube and other sites at a truly prodigious rate. Scientology has paid a huge amount of money to get its short films about Gibney to the right viewers. But Scientology’s efforts against Going Clear only seemed to increase the public’s interest in it.


So you can see, the major recent efforts to expose Scientology have all been countered with the church’s own counter-programming, and it would actually be pretty disappointing if they didn’t treat Louis Theroux the same way.

What will a Scientology film criticizing Theroux be like? We have a feeling it will be a lot like these previous efforts.

So help us build a vocabulary of Scientology’s attack videos. What did you find dull or clever in these short films? And do you think Louis Theroux has anything to worry about?


Bonus photos from our tipsters

Hey, it’s never too soon get that way to happiness going in Hualien, Taiwan!


Actual caption: “Yearly pilgrimage to the promised land.”


These guys want to welcome you to Narconon Moscow.


Party hats under the watchful eyes of the Commodore in Costa Rica!




On May 14, you will be able to purchase ‘The Unbreakable Miss Lovely’ from Amazon in either electronic or print format, and simultaneously in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

The book will not be available for pre-order before that date. It is going live for sale on Thursday, May 14, and not a moment earlier. And hey, that’s just a few weeks away, so you won’t have to wait long.

Our appearances…

May 16: Santa Barbara Humanist Society (with Paulette Cooper), 3:00 pm
May 17: Center for Inquiry-West Los Angeles, 4773 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, 11 am; ALSO: CFI Orange County (Costa Mesa), 4:30 pm (both events with Paulette Cooper)

May 20, San Diego Hey, folks, we could use some help. The San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry (SDARI) wants to put on an event for us, but it’s not their regular night for meetings and they need to find an alternate venue. Can any of our San Diego readers help us find a space?

May 22: San Francisco (with Jamie DeWolf and Paulette Cooper)

(Finalizing a New York City event in early June)

June 20: Chicago
June 22/23: Toronto (with Paulette Cooper)

July 12: Washington DC, Center for Inquiry


Posted by Tony Ortega on April 27, 2015 at 07:00

E-mail your tips and story ideas to or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. Here at the Bunker we try to have a post up every morning at 7 AM Eastern (Noon GMT), and on some days we post an afternoon story at around 2 PM. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of LA attorney and former church member Vance Woodward

UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists

GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer
The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill
The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield


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