10 Groundbreaking Documentary Exposés of Closed, Secret Worlds

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Sunday night, HBO will present the television debut of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney’s excellent (and controversial) documentary exposé of the history and practices of the Church of Scientology. The film is a barn-burner — not just because it’s compelling and well done (though it is), but because it gives such prominent exposure to an organization whose inner workings have largely remained behind closed, locked doors. This is one of the most valuable services nonfiction film can provide; some movies share history, some solve crimes, and some tell secrets. Here are some of the best docs in the latter category.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Gibney adapts Lawrence Wright’s riveting book with the kind of precision and skill you’d expect from the director of Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; his cutting, construction, graphics, and score smoothly and seductively encapsulate 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 terms and jargon with 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. And most effectively, he uses the testimony of former members to detail cases of abuse and exploitation, painting a picture so vivid that you can sort of understand why the CoS is trying so very hard to suppress it.

Prophet’s Prey

The latest from Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil, West of Memphis) debuted alongside Going Clear at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but with far less controversy — after all, loud, protesting publicity isn’t really how the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) rolls. Yet Berg burrows into their world, interviewing victims, family, and followers of notorious “prophet” Warren Jeffs, as well as uncovering haunting, disturbing tapes of his creepy messages to church 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.” And she provides a properly disturbing postscript: Jeffs still runs the FLDS church from jail, with his brother Lyle as his proxy and over ten thousand members still under his control.

Sons of Perdition

Berg wasn’t the first filmmaker to focus her camera on the FLDS; back in 2010, directors Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten released this profile of three teenage boys exiled from the sect. But it’s less about the inner workings of the church than the freedom of escaping it, as their protagonists adjust to the opening up of a whole world around them, all the while coping with the total estrangement from their families (and trying, with varying degrees of success, to help the family they left behind escape with them). The trust the filmmakers earned over the two years of shooting results in an unguarded honesty from their subjects, particularly when articulating the ways in which the church warped their views of both the world and themselves.

8: The Mormon Proposition

On its face (and in its title), Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet’s 2010 documentary is primarily a response to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ involvement in California’s controversial Proposition 8 decision. But the film’s real subject is the church’s treatment of LGBT members — not just in the abstract, but in practice, as the filmmakers discover that a large number of Utah’s homeless teens have been abandoned by their Mormon families due to their sexual orientations. As Variety noted in its rave review, “8 seems determined to reach the next generation of confused Mormon teens, touching on everything from sexual identity-related suicides and homelessness to punishing attempts at curing homosexual urges. Instead of stooping to the level of Focus on the Family’s misleading Prop. 8 ads, the pic damns the LDS Church not with lies, but with their own words.”

Trouble in Amish Paradise

This 2009 documentary (originally airing on BBC 2) takes a fascinating look at one of the oldest and most stringent Amish communities in America: the Old Order Amish of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The topic here is the specter of change — in this case, two members of the church questioning its fundamentalist aspects. Unsurprisingly, their attempt doesn’t go so well, resulting in excommunication (as well as, wouldn’t ya know it, a sequel documentary, Leaving Amish Paradise).

Blood in the Face

This fascinating 1991 documentary takes a rather scary look at the rise of white supremacist organizations — neo-Nazis, militia men, the Klan, etc. — in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Directors Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty, and James Ridgeway get extraordinary access to these groups and their members, thanks primarily to their non-confrontational methods; they just let these idiots talk, and let them talk themselves into their own corners. It was a lesson learned by one of the most gung-ho members of their crew: Michael Moore, who got his first taste of filmmaking on the project, and makes his earliest onscreen appearance as an interviewer.

The California Reich

A decade and a half earlier, directors Keith Critchlow and Walter F. Parkes (the latter of whom became a top film producer and studio head) took their cameras into the world of California’s National Socialist White People’s Party, capturing meetings and conversations that paint a scary picture of their subculture. Though initially a student production, this remarkable documentary would subsequently screen at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a 1975 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Bastards of the Party

It’s hard to imagine any outside documentarian managing to penetrate California’s gang culture — and, in fact, it took a former gang member to do it. Cle Sloan was a member of the Bloods; with the backing of producer Antoine Fuqua (director of Training Day), he used his access to the LA street scene to craft this detailed history and present-day snapshot of the Bloods, the Crips, and the world they inhabit.

Titicut Follies

Too much of America took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to mental institutions, either unaware of the shocking treatment of inmates there or unwilling to consider it. But clear back in 1967, legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman attempted to shine a light on that world, filming this document of daily life at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts. What he captured was so incendiary that the film was successfully kept out of the public eye for more than two decades, finally airing on PBS in 1992, no less shocking with a quarter-century’s distance.

Frat House

This controversial documentary’s inclusion on our list comes with an asterisk, since its portrait of a hidden world wasn’t exactly an honest one, technically speaking. When it first unspooled at Sundance in 1998, it was a sensation, winning the Grand Jury Prize for documentary, and no wonder; its sequences of the hazing rituals inflicted upon fraternity pledges at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College were harrowing, disgusting, and horrifying. They were also, come to find out, staged. Filmmakers Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland reportedly paid the local Alpha Tau Omega chapter a fee for letting them shoot at their house, paid fraternity members — not pledges — to participate in the film, and choreographed the hazing sequences themselves. In light of the controversy, HBO dropped a scheduled airing of the film, but the story didn’t harm co-director Phillips, who went on to direct frat-house faves Road Trip, Old School, and the Hangover trilogy. And everyone felt secure in knowing that only good things happen in fraternities, the end.