Summer is the time for big dumb action movies, but fans of intelligent and compelling filmmaking also have alternatives to superheroes, gross-out comedies, and Jason Bourne. Two newly released documentaries—Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism, and also Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief—are expertly crafted and explore the deepest questions about human belief and the nature of truth.
They are a kind of mirror image of each other. Going Clear marks the descent of free individuals into the madness of a science-fiction cult, while Liberating a Continent traces how Central and Eastern Europeans were inspired to break free from the clutches of the bizarre religious cult of communism.
Liberating a Continent is the finest and most complete record of Pope John Paul II’s crucial role in the fall of communism. The documentary uses archival footage and interviews with scholars, journalists, leaders in the Catholic Church, and St. John Paul II’s own close friends and personal acquaintances. The film is narrated by Jim Caveziel (star of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ).
The great value of Liberating a Continent is the fact that while most of this footage has been seen, it hasn’t all been compiled as one story arc. The film tracks Karol Wojtyla from his childhood with devout parents and upbringing in a free Poland, through his resistance to the Nazi invasion, and then focuses on his life as an underground seminarian and moral giant against the communist regime. “There is no way that you could contest Soviet power by force,” says professor Norman Davies, a leading expert on Polish history. “It had to be contested by spiritual power, and he did it.”
Following his election as Pope in 1978, St. John Paul gave two messages: “Do not be afraid!” and “Open wide the doors to Christ!” In the following year, the Pontiff returned to Poland, his homecoming an inspiration for the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement. Addressing hundreds of thousands in Victory Square, John Paul declared: “I who am a son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul II, I cry from all the depths of this millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost: ‘Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.’”
While the communist regime in Poland was ruthless, what comes across in Liberating a Continent is how petty and micromanaging totalitarians are. The comments of American Catholic historian George Weigel are featured, and in his 2010 book The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II – the Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, Weigel documents the little everyday maneuvers that insecure despots use to slowly erode the will of a free people. Weigel calls these “quotidian offenses,” noting that the communist regime in Poland threatened parents with unemployment if they didn’t send their kids to communist schools and youth groups; harassed Catholic publications with “paper shortages”; classed Catholic priests into three groups, enemies, neutrals, and “positives”; arrested priests and bishops and then staged phony “trials.” Watching Liberating a Continent, it’s hard not to think that the United States under liberalism may have a similar fate in store.
During the 1980 Summer Olympics, which Moscow hosted, the Soviets sent television antennae to every home in their satellite countries to encourage viewership. People discovered that by turning the aerial toward the West, they could pick up Polish television instead, and see reports on the Solidarity movement. If only those living in the West today were as hungry for truth.
Marginally more insane than the religion of communism is the cult of scientology. After all, Alex Gibney’s mesmerizing documentary Going Clear captures a group of people who believe the following: 75 million years ago, an alien named Xenu headed the Galactic Federation, which was an organization of 76 planets that had already existed for 20 million years. The planets were suffering from overpopulation, and Xenu’s solution was to gather large numbers of people, kill them, freeze their “thetans” (souls), and transport the frozen thetans to Earth, which was then called “Teegeeack.” The thetans were left in the vicinity of volcanoes, which were blown up in a series of nuclear explosions. Members of the Galactic Federation rebelled against Xenu, fighting him for six years before he was finally imprisoned.
There’s more. The thetans who were captured and exploded on Earth attached themselves to humans. Through a system called “auditing,” Scientologists help adherents to rid themselves of “engrams,” or painful past memories, as well as excessive thetans. Past memories included not only one’s current life, but past lives. Eventually a person reaches a state of “Clear,” with a capital “C,” with only their own thetan, or soul, remaining. Ultimately one becomes an “Operating Thetan,” wherein one’s thetan is completely free of external limitations and is even able to movie objects with the mind.
Going Clear, based on the 2013 book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, is the story of L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986), the science fiction author who invented Scientology in 1952. Hubbard was a pulp fiction writer who served briefly in the Marine Corps Reserve and was an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II. In 1947, he wrote a letter to the Veterans Administration requesting psychiatric help, a request that was denied. Hubbard was less a charlatan than a man struggling with mental illness, and this illness, combined with an active imagination and a staggering work ethic (he wrote over 500 books) explains Scientology. He called it “the modern science of mental health.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he spent much of his time at sea on his personal fleet of ships as “Commodore” of the “Sea Organization,” an elite inner group of Scientologists. Britain, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Venezuela, maritime nations that were wary of the group, eventually closed their ports to Hubbard’s fleet. He returned to the United States in 1975 and spent the rest of his life in seclusion in the California desert.
The most disturbing parts of Going Clear are the revelations about adherents’ exposing and exorcizing each other’s painful memories through bullying, personal abuse, and physical confinement. Those whose personal and psychological problems continued even after achieving “Clear” status were sent back to marathon “auditing” sessions. Just as with the communists, followers who expressed doubt or betrayed the slightest resistance were brutalized for petty reasons.
The public has been less aware of this aspect than that Scientology has attracted Hollywood celebrities, including John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Perhaps the most harrowing interview in Going Clear is with entertainment industry veteran Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, who was part of Scientology’s Sea Org. Taylor was a close friend of Travolta’s. She was sent to the Rehabilitation Project Force, a place where Sea Org members undergo “rehabilitation.” Project Force is like a prison, with those inside enduring sleep deprivation and physical labor. After giving birth, Taylor was not allowed to see her baby daughter. As with communism, in Scientology, children are propagandized and brainwashed to serve the cult. When the baby got sick, Taylor escaped in a cab to head to a doctor. She never went back.
So why do people believe it? Why do they buy the Xenu story? As journalist Tony Ortega revealed in the Village Voice, it’s due to a gradual escalation in the outlandishness of the past life stories Scientologists discover during “auditing.” Unsurprisingly, these stories tend toward adventure and self-glorification. As Ortega puts it, “Why question Hubbard’s tale about mass alien genocide 75 million years ago, when you’ve been ‘seeing’ yourself as some kind of Buck Rogers fighting enemies and bedding beauties from one end of the galaxy to the other?”
After Hubbard died in 1986, Scientology was taken over by David Miscavige, an early Hubbard acolyte. Under Miscavige, who is reportedly a tyrant, the cult has received tax-exempt status from the IRS. Unlike Miscavige, Hubbard at least had the excuse of mental illness.