A controversial church, the wrongful prosecution of four Texas lesbians, and look at a TV icon.
My Scientology Movie
Director: John Dower, UK, 100 min
Sunday, May 8, 6:15 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King St. West)
There have been enough exposés of Scientology over the last few years (most notably Alex Gibney’s recent HBO doc based on Lawrence Wright’s non-fiction account Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief) that one wonders what else there is to say about the church. But the British documentary filmmaker and TV personality Louis Theroux, who spent years fruitlessly trying to make a Scientology documentary through proper church channels, hit upon a novel approach. Taking inspiration from Joshua Oppenheimer’s post-modern documentary The Act Of Killing, Theroux sets up shop in Hollywood to begin work on dramatized recreations of life inside the church, based on its own in-house propaganda and recollections of disgruntled former Scientologists. This includes his ace in the hole Marty Rathbun, who was once the right hand man of church leader David Miscavige before he “blew” (Scientology jargon for “quit”) the church in 2004 to turn whistleblower. Theroux’s production team build sets on a soundstage and holds auditions to cast actors to play Miscavige and his star pupil Tom Cruise, who then perform reenactments of church indoctrination tactics, as well as depictions of Miscavige’s alleged abusive outbursts at Scientology’s purported punishment facility “The Hole,” as witnessed by Rathbun.
It doesn’t take long for the Church of Scientology to suddenly become very interested in Theroux’s project; there is a moment early on where a woman in a bikini drops by the open door of their hotel room to ask them what they are filming and the woman turns out to be actor Paz de la Huerta from Boardwalk Empire, which may or may not have been a random incident. Soon enough, Theroux receives legal warnings, is tailed by mysterious white vans while driving through LA, is confronted by church pitbulls whenever he gets anywhere near one of its properties, and finally plagued by Scientology surveillance teams showing up outside the soundstage.
As the tension builds, Theroux starts to circle in on the story of Rathbun. In legal complaints, the church describes him as an unstable, embittered man with an axe to grind, and Theroux hears from other ex-members that Rathbun, Miscavige’s chief enforcer and self-described “Mr. Fixit,” was once an enthusiastic foot soldier in the cause; another one of Theroux’s sources tells him Rathbun once even sucker-punched him. Rathbun, clearly buckling over the course of the shoot, begins to resent Theroux’s authority on set and having to face lines of questioning about his own complicity in the church’s methods; the growing rift between the two men leads to some highly charged moments.
Theroux is a perfect guide to this world, maintaining a deadpan tone and hardly ever going for easy laughs, despite the temptation in the face of some of the ridiculous intimidation he is subjected to. There are some absurd showdowns between duelling camera crews, with Theroux flipping the script and trying to start dialogues with the Scientology operatives sent out to bully him. Theroux maintains empathy for the members of the church who were likely sincere in their hopes that Scientology held the key to self-improvement, but paints a pretty grim picture of the leadership and alleged conduct of David Miscavige, who now seems to preside over a dwindling empire.
Southwest Of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
Director: Deborah S Esquenazi, USA, 89 min
Sunday May 8, 12:45 pm
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Southwest Of Salem tells the very sad and shocking story of a modern witch hunt. In 1994, four Latina lesbians just out of high school, who had formed a community of their own within their religious conservative hometown of San Antonio, Texas, were abruptly charged with gang-raping two little girls (the nieces of one of the women) as part of a satanic ritual, and subjected to a sensationalized criminal trial based on the testimony of the two little girls and scant physical evidence. As the film lays out the narrative, it is very clear that the women’s sexual orientation was used against them at every level—in the police investigation, the prosecution, jury selection, and in the trial by media within their community. They were all found guilty and were sentenced to harsh prison sentences ranging ranging from 15 to 37 years.
The women had all been caught up in the tail end of a wave of hysteria that swept the southern U.S. in the late 80s and early 90s “Satanic Panic” convictions, based on a belief that cults were infiltrating daycare centres and preschools, subjecting children to ritualized sexual molestation as a method of programming for a later conversion to serve the devil in their adult lives. The people charged with such crimes were predominantly gays and lesbians, playing into the conflation of homosexuality and child abuse in religious communities.
Their fortunes changed thanks to a very unlikely development—a Canadian research scientist in Yukon came across the story and thought their crimes bore little resemblance to what he knew about actual sex crimes committed by women (who almost always act alone). This lead him to reach out to one of the women to offer his assistance, which led to the involvement of the Innocence Project of Texas, providing advocacy for the wrongfully convicted. They saw a clear bias in the criminal justice system against LGBT people and the film goes along with the investigators from this point. One of the women is released from prison after the Innocence Project and the documentarians help to overturn the ruling.
Documentaries such as Southwest Of Salem infuriate the audience because, as the film lays out the narrative, we can see the women are clearly innocent and have been so obviously railroaded based on the severity of the accusations and community prejudice. Their innocence is established by the filmmakers with such certainty that the film becomes overwhelmingly heartbreaking as we see the women finally embark on the road not only to justice but to the conclusive exoneration of these crimes. Shockingly this story isn’t even over. Although the San Antonio Four were able to have their case considered in a court of appeal, the judge seemed more concerned with defending the good name of the original forensic doctor in the case, who saw her work re-appraised as “junk science,” than at undoing the actual miscarriage of justice; he did not exonerate them, but instead ruled that they were eligible for a retrial. This has turned out to be a low priority in the Texas courts and has yet to even be scheduled (as a result the San Antonio Four, still considered sex offenders, were not allowed through by Canada Customs to attend this week’s Hot Docs screening, despite being cleared for travel by the state of Texas).
Southwest of Salem tells a heartbreaking and intimate story of justice denied, years lost, families wrecked, and love violated. It is impossible to watch this story, meet these women, and not be upset by what happened to them.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, USA, 91 min
Friday May 6, 6:45 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Saturday May 7, 3:15 p.m.
Norman Lear is one of the giants of American popular culture—with a long and storied career in television dating back to the beginning of the medium; along with his great friends Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner “they were responsible for everything you laughed at in the second half of the 20th century” recalls Rob Reiner, a key actor from All In The Family, the 70s satirical sitcom produced by Lear that changed the sitcom format forever. Further successes followed, with sitcoms dealing with modern feminism (Maude) and Black family life (Good Times and The Jeffersons). At his peak, Lear had six of the top 10 shows in the weekly Nielsen ratings and in the era of only three American TV networks, unheard-of viewership (an episode of Maude dealing with abortion was viewed by 65 million people). Lear abruptly walked away from the medium towards the end of the decade, in the wake of the collapse of his marriage, but redirected his efforts and influence in counterbalancing the rise of Ronald Reagan and the right-wing evangelical group the Moral Majority with his own liberal advocacy group People For The American Way, stressing the separation of church and state. He even purchased one of the 25 surviving original copies of the Declaration of Independence to take it on an unabashedly patriotic national tour to ensure millions of Americans would have access to see it for themselves.
It’s a fascinating life, and at 93 Lear continues to stay active and engaged in the culture. One would hope for a documentary about such a confrontational creative force to be more forthright than this film, produced for the PBS series American Masters and directed by the filmmakers behind Jesus Camp. Their take on Lear is fairly worshipful, with testimonials from such heavy hitters as George Clooney, Amy Poehler, and Jon Stewart, but there is a feeling of some pulled punches here; one of the most interesting stretches of the film concerns the making of Good Times, the first TV series to depict Black American family life; as some behind-the-scenes footage of production reveals, the cast felt pressure to honourably portray the Black community, though the sitcom format inevitably drifted towards buffoonery as embodied by Jimmy Walker’s clownish character J.J. and his signature catchphrase “Dy-no-mite!” In fact, the Black Panthers wound up paying a visit to Lear’s production office—“We’ve come to see the garbage man” they said upon arrival; their contentious conversation with Lear led to his creation of The Jeffersons, a show actually made for Black audiences that depicted a more aspirational, middle-class milieu. The filmmakers tell this story through clips and cast interviews but don’t really push Lear for his perspective.
The film disappointingly glosses over some of his most experimental later programs that weren’t major ratings hits but were, in their own way, deeply influential on the future of television comedy, including the parody soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and its spinoff Fernwood 2 Night, a satire of local talk shows that paved the way for SCTV and The Larry Sanders Show. This doc spends perhaps a minute on each. The decision to elide over Lear’s more conceptual works is curious considering this film’s ambitiously arty yet somewhat distancing framing device—the film takes place in a highly stylized stage set while a young boy wearing Lear’s signature white hat reviews key moments in his early life and career projected on billowing fabric screens on the stage. There is so much to talk about when it comes to Lear and his many decades in showbiz, with so much footage to choose from, and so much potential for a measured critique of his achievements that this cloying framing device seems more like a dodge, a bit of misdirection more appropriate for a stylish biography of a magician rather than one of the main architects of modern American culture.
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