Sundance Docs ‘Going Clear’ and ‘Prophet’s Prey’ Ask: Religion or Cult?

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PARK CITY, UT: Late in Prophet’s Prey, Amy Berg’s provocative and powerful documentary case against FLDS church head Warren Jeffs, author Jon Krakauer says this about the church’s continued dedication to a man who is clearly a monster: “It speaks to something disturbing about human nature. Once you believe something, it’s very, very difficult to give that up completely.” That simple yet undeniable truth lies at the center of not only Prophet’s Prey but Going Clear, Alex Gibney’s already controversial look at the history and methodology of the Church of Scientology. Both films use extensive documentation, buried tapes, and testimony from departed members to paint portraits of organizations that would call themselves one thing (church), while most sensible people would call them another (cult).

And both are defined by what author Lawrence Wright calls “crushing certainty that eliminates doubt.” Wright was the author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Doubt, a 2013 exposé that dug deep into the sketchy history of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the church’s rise to prominence, and the allegations of mind control, bullying, physical abuse, and exploitation made by those who managed to escape its clutches.

Author Lawrence Wright speaks at the Sundance premiere of “Going Clear.” Photo Credit: Jason Bailey/ Flavorwire

It’s a hefty read, and Gibney boils it down with skill, his cutting, construction, graphics, and score smoothly and seductively encapsulating Scientology’s appeal. He also makes the most of the documentary form’s efficiency and speed to lay out exactly how the organization worked, with particular attention paid to the terms and jargon of the organization. Many of them have the ring of science fiction, which isn’t surprising — much of the philosophy was apparently drawn from Hubbard’s earlier sci-fi and pulp writing.

This is the kind of film that gets more bonkers the deeper you go. But then again, Scientology is sort of the same way — it starts out with at lot of self-help idealism, and it’s not until you’ve invested a hefty amount of time and money that you’re told the “Creation Myth,” which is even more insane than the Mormons’. (It also makes for one of the film’s most entertaining sequences, as Gibney uses flash-cut stock footage to illustrate Paul Haggis’ initial response: “And I’m going, what the fuck are you talking about?”).

Alex Gibney at the Sundance premiere of “Going Clear.” Photo Credit: Jason Bailey/ Flavorwire

But Gibney (like Wright before him) isn’t just pointing and looking; he wants to understand what this organization is really about — what drove its founder, what pulls people in, and what makes them stay there. There are plenty of bombshells, from the aforementioned charges to suppositions of personal information held hostage to new allegations about the church’s involvement in the personal lives of its most famous members. But the most reasonable explanation for how they keep their members is the simplest: “They don’t know anything else,” says an escapee, while another notes that their policy of forcing members to “disconnect” from friends and family who don’t buy in (“suppressives”) is, simply, “how you keep people in a bubble.” This is not unique to Scientology; the FLDS members in Prophet’s Prey are forced to do the same.

Even if you’re willing to write off the testimony of the former members in Going Clear as the sour grapes of slanderers — as the Church has — it must be said that there is something just plain off about the recruiting tapes, music videos, and tapes of rallies that Gibney digs up; they just had to know how much they looked like Triumph of the Will, and how much current Church head David Miscavige sounds, with his word salad of motivational phrases and relentless “we’re all going to save the rest of them” rhetoric, like a crazy person.

Similarly, the creepily calm voice of FLDS “prophet” Warren Jeffs — one so even yet otherworldly that it sounds heavily sedated — provides a kind of second soundtrack for Prophet’s Prey, more unnerving than anything a score composer could work up. With the aid of such stern instructions as, “You’re a person willing to give up your own will and just obey the priesthood above you,” as well as the testimony of numerous former confidants and family members, Berg meticulously details how Jeffs used his position of power and the notion that “perfect obedience produces perfect faith” to marry and molest countless women, many of them underage, most forced into “plural marriage.”

This sort of thing could only last so long, of course. The wheels began to fall off the wagon around 2004, and he spent the next three years as a fugitive, playing cat and mouse with state and local authorities, upending his followers, communicating (like the drug dealers on The Wire) with “burner” phones. That middle section, detailing the complicated series of overlapping charges and investigations in multiple states, gets a bit complicated, and Berg’s film threatens to get away from her. But the conclusion of that section, with his Texas conviction sealed by a stomach-turning audio tape of Jeffs raping a 12-year-old “wife,” leaves us with the appropriately pathetic image of this so-called prophet behind the mesh of a prison visiting room, murmuring “Fifth Amendment” to any questions he’s asked.

And then, in a structural masterstroke, Berg comes back around to the personal anguish of those in his wake, families and spirits broken by his megalomania. And in these final passages, the sadness and hopelessness of the story becomes overwhelming. According to Prophet’s Prey, Jeffs still runs the FLDS church from jail, with his brother Lyle as his proxy. Over ten thousand members are still under his control. “He does these terrible things to them,” Krakauer acknowledges, “and they still believe him, and they continue to believe him.” But if there’s one lesson to learn (or have reaffirmed) by these powerful documentaries, it’s that delusion is an endlessly, unquestionably powerful thing.

Going Clear and Prophet’s Prey screen this week at the Sundance Film Festival. Going Clear will air on HBO on March 16. Prophet’s Prey will air on Showtime later this year.