Facets Exclusive: The Terror of Alex Gibney’s Going Clear (Video Essay)

Just in time for Halloween, contributor Sean Duffy takes a look at Alex Gibney’s startling expose of the Church of Scientology, Going Clear, through the format of a video essay.

The most terrifying film of 2015 so far is Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, a startling expose of the Church of Scientology. Gibney, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, investigates the religion and its leaders, featuring testimony from former members and officials who detail the organizations’ abuses and corruption. Sacrificing an objective artifice, Gibney embraces the power of the documentary film to reveal truths in a way that’s provocative, effective, and at times, plain scary. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival before having a limited theatrical release and finally premiering to a wider public on HBO, where it was able to qualify for, and eventually win, three Emmy awards.

Going Clear contains cinematic elements of the horror, thriller, and science fiction genres. From Hitchcock to Craven, Gibney understands the importance of a relenting score, playing within shadows, and the effect of the ever-hidden and ever-lurking danger of the unknown. Gibney combines techniques of the horror and thriller genre with the societal fears that permeate the near-future dystopias of films like A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, and Brazil. But unlike those films, Going Clear is a work of non-fiction, with real people recounting real stories of lies, corruption, and emotional and physical abuse, all in the name of personal and spiritual growth.

Gibney sets the tone of the film by the utilizing every possibility of the mise-en-scene. Instead of trying to create a sense of cinema-virte realism, Going Clear is unashamedly formalistic, following the lead of other documentary filmmakers like Errol Morris, who use dramatic reenactments and other narrative film techniques to give their films a stylistic bite. Each interviewee is lit unevenly and low-key, creating a stark contrast between light and dark. Immersed in a shallow depth-of-field and covered using extreme close-ups, Gibney forces us to focus on the details of his subjects’ faces, furthering our empathy and pressuring us to examine each wrinkle of skin that hides their internalized anger, pain, and deep shame. Gibney uses these same techniques in reenactments. Never a full scene but rather bits within a montage, these dramatizations are always shown in close-up, omitting faces and spatial information .This makes small features appear enormous and often grotesque, from the dripping of water, the crawling of ants, to the buzz of e-meters. The film also makes strong use of archival footage throughout, often distorting and layering clips to an unnerving effect.

While never overpowering the visuals or the voices of interviewees, the musical score is constant throughout the film, often juxtaposing footage that would appear normal or even joyful otherwise. The most prominent instrument is the soundtrack is the Theremin. The instrument has an inherent spooky and aged connotation, rarely used in any function other than to convey the eerie creepiness of old carnivals, turn of the century oddities, and twilight zones.

One of the oddest similarities Going Clear has with the horror genre is its use of dark humor. While always holding itself and its subject matter with deeply serious regard, Gibney and the interview subjects never refrain from pointing out some of the absurdities in the actions and history of Scientology, and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, for a good laugh.. The contrast between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the abusive act of “musical chairs” that the members of the hole are forced to play is comparable to A Clockwork Orange’s use of “Singing In The Rain” in the scene where Alex and his gang beat and rob an older couple in their home. The mismatch in the sequences creates a dark humor that makes the violence that much more effective and uncomfortable for the viewer.

Through a thoughtful use of mise-en-scene, musical scoring, and dark humor, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is an effective and informative documentary that channels the same sense of dread and terror of some of the best horror, thriller, and dystopian films. Gibney takes the already frightening reality of the Church of Scientology and its abuses and dresses them up to be even more impactful and unsettling.

If you’re looking for a movie to keep you up late at night with the lights on, look no further then one of 2015’s finest achievements in non-fiction.

Available to rent at Facets Vidéothèque.


Author:  Sean Duffy is a writer, filmmaker, and performer. Last year, New City Magazine named him one of the “Top Five Emerging Chicago Poets of 2014”. He has one of those website things. This autumn he is the Marketing Assistant Intern at Facets.

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