Daily Notifications
Sign up for free emails to receive the feature story every morning in your inbox at


Filmmakers tell us why they decided to help Scientology with its new TV network

[The Somali national team on its way to a match, 2013]

The 2017 documentary Men in the Arena follows two teenagers trying to make it as soccer players in one of the most dystopian places on earth — battle-ravaged Somalia.

Think Hoop Dreams, but set in a war zone.

The two young players are good enough that they play on Somalia’s mostly hapless national team, which goes to Kenya in 2013 for an important regional tournament against other eastern and central African national squads. No one there expects them to score a goal, let alone win a match.

But with what Somalia had been through, it was amazing that there was any team at all. The Islamist terror organization al-Shabaab outlawed all sport in the country, and even after a more moderate faction had wrested control, the national stadium in Mogadishu was still in no shape for a game to take place. The team’s two stars, Saadiq Mohamed and Sa’ad Hussein, would have to take their obvious talents elsewhere if they were going to have any success, but it was tough to work on your ballhandling skills when you’re not sure where your next meal was coming from, or even if you would survive that long. So the 2013 trip to Kenya became crucial for them to catch the eye of a foreign talent scout for a chance at playing in other parts of Africa, perhaps even Europe, or maybe even the ultimate dream of going to America.

It’s a stunning documentary, obviously crafted not only with technical skill by director J.R. Biersmith, but also at considerable personal risk. And Biersmith became part of the story, as later reporting shows. Saadiq managed to get to the US and is currently playing for a university team, and Biersmith then personally helped Sa’ad join his former teammate in the US as the documentary was about to premiere in 2017 — it would have been dangerous for either of the young men to be in Somalia when a film critical of al-Shabaab came out.


We thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and we watched it by paying $3.99 on YouTube, streaming it on our laptop about a week ago. And the reason we did it was that we had reached out to Biersmith, who was good enough to get back to us and agreed to a phone conversation about his documentary.

We wanted to ask him why he was allowing his film to show on the Church of Scientology’s DirecTV channel.

Last March, David Miscavige premiered “Scientology TV” after a long build up. It debuted along with a massive advertising campaign, with commercials on prime time television shows and ubiquitous web advertising. But the channel itself was universally panned — it was nothing but 24 hours of church propaganda on a heavily repeating schedule.

In the fall, Miscavige crowed about a “second season” at the channel, and one of its features would be a documentary showcase, showing real films by legitimate filmmakers that had nothing to do with Scientology. This first batch includes 13 films, including Biersmith’s Men in the Arena.

Most of the filmmakers in the showcase also sat down for interviews that you can watch at Scientology TV’s website.


The first thing we asked Biersmith was whether that interview was shot at Scientology Media Productions, the lavish studios Scientology opened in 2016 on Sunset Boulevard. He said it was.

He lives in Los Angeles, and he heard about the showcase through his friend and fellow director Sarah Moshman, who also has a film in the series.

“Our distributor called and asked, do you have any issues with this? I of course thought about it,” he says. “Ultimately it’s not a very sexy answer, I really just settled on that we made a film about a people and place that the entire world looks at as a pariah, and I want as many people to see it as possible. The film is a 90-minute experience that exists on its own. Ultimately, I was like, fine.”

We asked if he was aware of the controversies surrounding Scientology, the things that Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney had uncovered in his HBO film Going Clear, or that Leah Remini was exposing on her A&E series Scientology and the Aftermath.

Biersmith says he was aware of those issues. He brought up the Christian Broadcast Network, which airs things he finds repugnant. “If they called and offered to show my film, I would say all right. That’s an audience that might not otherwise get to see it,” he says.

“When it comes to documentaries, getting your story out there is not easy. And when you have a new cable station coming on, you have to give it a thought.”


We asked how familiar he was with Scientology TV.

“I haven’t watched anything over there. If you looked at how they were pitching it, it was all church related,” he says. “But they really want to understand the documentary world. When you go over to do the interview, there’s a bunch of people. They had one guy who reached out to the filmmakers. They seemed to be really thoughtful. They said they didn’t just want to acquire films, they wanted to better understand what the intent was with the films. They wanted to get to know the filmmaker.”

Biersmith says that appealed to him. “Of course, who knows what the motives are, but that wasn’t something I had experienced before.”

He was told that his movie would air twice on the showcase. (In fact, it’s playing tonight at 8 pm Eastern, for its second run.)

He didn’t mind doing the interview, but he says they also wanted him and the other filmmakers to do promo spots to run the day their film was running.

Biersmith declined. “That’s on them. That’s not me.”

He says he also gave them some advice. “I was trying to tell them, if you really want to make a documentary showcase, it needs to be its own entity, not tied to the church, or it will fail.”

Since his movie played on the channel the first time, we asked him if he’d heard much of a reaction. He said we were the first person to contact him and ask about it.

“I was glad you called,” he said. “I was glad to have a conversation. There are conflicts of interest everywhere, but a film needs to stand on its own…One of the things we talked about — they do some human rights things. So, then they can shine a light on a place like Somalia that nobody gives a fuck about.”

We told Biersmith that we were very glad that he’d agreed to an interview, and that we very much enjoyed talking to him — and we liked his movie. But we told him that the documentary showcase and its interest in getting to know filmmakers felt a lot like another Scientology effort, the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest, that since the 1980s has involved some of science fiction’s biggest names. (In recent years, more and more contest winners have been questioning whether the contest is tainted by its association with Scientology.)

We also told Biersmith that our readers would probably not be very happy that he was lending his talents to Scientology’s attempt to legitimize its TV network.

“Your readers can say whatever they want to me, but that is always going to be my answer,” he says, adding that getting the word out about Somalia is always more important to him.

We also sent emails or other messages to all of the other filmmakers in the series. We heard back from only one other, Marlene “Mo” Morris, director of the film A New Color. (IMDB’s description: “African American artist, educator, and activist Edythe Boone has been changing the world one mural at a time for decades, then tragedy strikes.”)

When we asked her if she was aware of Scientology’s controversies, she wrote back, “Yes. I am aware of that and made what I believe is a principled decision.”


She asked why we were asking, and when we explained that we were asking for this website, she didn’t respond further.


The others didn’t respond at all. Most of them did sit for interviews at Scientology Media Productions.


Alex James: Slowing Down Fast Fashion (2016)
Director: Ben Akers
IMDB: “Alex James, Blur bassist turned cheese maker, presents this critical look at our disposable approach to clothing and it’s enormous human and environmental cost.”



Sacred Stage: The Mariinsky Theater (2005)
Director: Joshua Waletzky
Producer: Lisa Colburn
IMDB: “Set against the backdrop of the magical White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, Sacred Stage features the best in Russian symphonic music, ballet and opera at Russia’s premier theater — the Mariinsky, also known as the Kirov.”


The Kids Menu (2016)
Director: Kurt Engfehr
Producer: Joe Cross
IMDB: “In THE KIDS MENU, Joe Cross meets with experts, parents, teachers and kids, coming to the realization that childhood obesity isn’t the real issue, but rather a symptom of a bigger problem.”



Oscar Arias: Without a Shot Fired (2017)
Director: Dawn Gifford Engle
IMDB: “The story of former president of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Oscar Sanchez Arias.”


The Rescuers (2011)
Director: Michael King
IMDB: “The film traces the journey of Stephanie Nyombayire, a young Rwandan anti-genocide activist who teams up with Sir Martin Gilbert, the renowned Holocaust historian, to travel across 15 countries and three continents interviewing survivors and descendants of the diplomats who rescued tens of thousands of Jews from the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi death camps.”


Letters from Generation Rx (2017)
Director: Kevin P. Miller

IMDB: “Explores the science behind antidepressants, their effects on the brain and the horrific experiences endured by patients and their loved ones.”


Nicky’s Family (2011)
Director: Matej Minac
IMDB: “The story of Nicholas Winton, an Englishman who organized the rescue of 669 Czech and Slovak children just before the outbreak of World War II.”


The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things (2014)
Director: Sarah Moshman
IMDB: “The incredible journey of five female filmmakers driving across America.”


Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard (2012)
Director: Bryan Reichhardt
IMDB: “A documentary focused around a set of old Japanese children’s drawings found in the closet of a member of All Souls Church in Washington, DC in 1995”


Humpback Whales (2015, 40 min)
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Narrator: Ewan McGregor
IMDB: “An in-depth look at the lives of humpback whales and the challenges they face to avoid extinction.”


Easy Like Water (2012)
Director: Glenn Baker
IMDB: “As flood waters threaten, a visionary architect is building solar floating schools — and creating a blueprint for his country’s survival. But can ‘Bangladesh’s Noah’ keep his imperiled nation from drowning?”


Start making your plans!


Scientology’s celebrities, ‘Ideal Orgs,’ and more!

[Kelly Preston, Beck, and Anne Archer]

We’ve been building landing pages about David Miscavige’s favorite playthings, including celebrities and ‘Ideal Orgs,’ and we’re hoping you’ll join in and help us gather as much information as we can about them. Head on over and help us with links and photos and comments.

Scientology’s celebrities, from A to Z! Find your favorite Hubbardite celeb at this index page — or suggest someone to add to the list!

Scientology’s ‘Ideal Orgs,’ from one end of the planet to the other! Help us build up pages about each these worldwide locations!

Scientology’s sneaky front groups, spreading the good news about L. Ron Hubbard while pretending to benefit society!

Scientology Lit: Books reviewed or excerpted in our weekly series. How many have you read?



[ONE year ago] A new chapter for one of the best Scientology books of all time? Yes, and we have it!
[TWO years ago] Leah Remini has changed Scientology forever — which episode was your favorite?
[THREE years ago] Stalked in New Orleans cemetery: Scientology’s secretive defectors getting more open
[FOUR years ago] VIDEO LEAK: See former Scientology official Marty Rathbun interrogated under oath
[FIVE years ago] Jon Atack on Scientology’s fundamental feature: the thousand-yard stare
[SIX years ago] Blogging Dianetics, Part 3: The Meaning of Life!
[SEVEN years ago] Scientology’s Goons: Intimidating a 71-Year-Old Missouri Grandmother


Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley has not seen his daughter Stephanie in 5,333 days.
Valerie Haney has not seen her mother Lynne in 1,464 days.
Katrina Reyes has not seen her mother Yelena in 1,966 days
Sylvia Wagner DeWall has not seen her brother Randy in 1,446 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his grandson Leo in 509 days.
Geoff Levin has not seen his son Collin and daughter Savannah in 397 days.
Christie Collbran has not seen her mother Liz King in 3,704 days.
Clarissa Adams has not seen her parents Walter and Irmin Huber in 1,572 days.
Carol Nyburg has not seen her daughter Nancy in 2,346 days.
Jamie Sorrentini Lugli has not seen her father Irving in 3,120 days.
Quailynn McDaniel has not seen her brother Sean in 2,466 days.
Dylan Gill has not seen his father Russell in 11,032 days.
Melissa Paris has not seen her father Jean-Francois in 6,952 days.
Valeska Paris has not seen her brother Raphael in 3,119 days.
Mirriam Francis has not seen her brother Ben in 2,700 days.
Claudio and Renata Lugli have not seen their son Flavio in 2,960 days.
Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter Ashley in 2,000 days.
Lori Hodgson has not seen her son Jeremy and daughter Jessica in 1,712 days.
Marie Bilheimer has not seen her mother June in 1,238 days.
Joe Reaiche has not seen his daughter Alanna Masterson in 5,327 days
Derek Bloch has not seen his father Darren in 2,467 days.
Cindy Plahuta has not seen her daughter Kara in 2,787 days.
Roger Weller has not seen his daughter Alyssa in 7,643 days.
Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 2,762 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 1,118 days.
Mike Rinder has not seen his son Benjamin and daughter Taryn in 5,420 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his daughter Spring in 1,526 days.
Skip Young has not seen his daughters Megan and Alexis in 1,929 days.
Mary Kahn has not seen her son Sammy in 1,800 days.
Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 1,383 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike and daughter Emily in 1,878 days.
Mary Jane Sterne has not seen her daughter Samantha in 2,132 days.
Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 13,241 days.


Posted by Tony Ortega on January 18, 2019 at 07:00

E-mail tips to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We also post updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Our new book with Paulette Cooper, Battlefield Scientology: Exposing L. Ron Hubbard’s dangerous ‘religion’ is now on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. Our book about Paulette, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2018 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Underground Bunker (2012-2018), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)

Other links: BLOGGING DIANETICS: Reading Scientology’s founding text cover to cover | 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 | Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | 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

Watch our short videos that explain Scientology’s controversies in three minutes or less…

Check your whale level at our dedicated page for status updates, or join us at the Underground Bunker’s Facebook discussion group for more frivolity.

Our non-Scientology stories: Robert Burnham Jr., the man who inscribed the universe | Notorious alt-right inspiration Kevin MacDonald and his theories about Jewish DNA | The selling of the “Phoenix Lights” | Astronomer Harlow Shapley‘s FBI file | Sex, spies, and local TV news


Share Button
Print Friendly, PDF & Email