With the retreat of religion into the private sphere, it has become generally impolite to publicly mock someone else’s religious beliefs. People still do, of course, and sometimes cross over into more inflammatory rhetoric, but they can generally expect pushback if their remarks reach beyond a small group of likeminded people. I suspect, though, that most Americans, right or left, religious or irreligious, would have little problem with others insulting the Church of Scientology. Its newness (and the easy access to history regarding its origins), the uniqueness of its tenets, and its aura of secrecy all invite ridicule. Recently, several exposes have emerged of the religion, including Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear (which played here at True/False several years ago).
Director Jeffrey Peixoto takes a markedly different approach with Over the Rainbow. Less journalist, more intimate, the film dares to take Scientology seriously, at least as experienced by its members. In a remarkable coup, considering how tight-lipped Scientologists usually are with outsiders, Peixoto spent several years gaining the trust of a few Scientologists, who open up in depth about the lived experience of practicing their religion, along with what drew them to it in the first place. They are all colorful characters, from a couple who work as art brokers dealing exclusively with the paintings of Thomas Kinkade, to an older woman who runs a school for “ethical children,” and they speak about the significance of Scientology in their lives with fervor and lucidity.
If Over the Rainbow had stuck to its core premise and merely offered an insider account of Scientology, the film would stand as a bold work of cultural anthropology. Unfortunately, Peixoto loses sight of what makes his film distinctive and clutters it with unnecessary threads. He interviews several talking heads with little direct relation to Scientology – a psychologist who studies alien abductees, a journalist interest in technology, and an archivist in a library specializing in new American religions. Other than the journalist, who has an interesting insight into Scientology as a religion of the Information Age, these interviews add little to the film; I found the psychologist, who trots out the tired old trope of religion as coping mechanism, especially irksome.
The film also devotes a large amount of time to a woman who grew up within Scientology, but seems to be in the process of leaving the religion. She documents the difficulties of her childhood, and we hear a chilling conversation with her father, still a devoted member of the Church. It is clear that she is disillusioned, and rightly so. But, as powerful as this section is, it feels imported in from another movie, one dedicated to exposing the dangers of the religion. These scenes sit in uneasy balance with the rest of the film, and almost feel like a safeguard, lest the film be criticized for being pro-Scientology. That’s too bad, because a film dedicated to taking true believers seriously would be a much better film. I’m no fan of Scientology, and I think it needs to be critiqued, but it also needs to be understood, and a film that patiently documented how Scientologists view themselves and their religious beliefs would be invaluable. Over the Rainbow is not quite that film, but it’s good enough to make you hanker for more.