His documentaries have reaped plaudits but Alex Gibney has also felt the wrath of those on whom he’s shone his spotlight. By Amruta Slee.

Alex Gibney on Scientology and his documentary Going Clear

American documentary-maker Alex Gibney.
American documentary-maker Alex Gibney.

Alex Gibney’s documentaries are marked by confession – regretful ones (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), squirming ones (Client 9; The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) or brazenly confident ones (The Armstrong Lie). In his latest film, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the enduring image is shame as former Scientologists talk about how they colluded in activities from recording Nicole Kidman’s phone calls to ritual humiliations to simply looking the other way when confronted by inconvenient truths.

These cinematic confessions offer what Gibney calls the “advantage of the camera” – film’s ability to capture every twitching muscle and sideways glance as no other medium can. It helps that the people offering up their sins in his films are some of the more outrageous characters of our age – those in the thrall of money or power or rank ambition; paedophile priests, hedge-fund billionaires or Lance Armstrong; people with whom fiction can’t compete. Noting that director Stephen Frears is about to release a Lance Armstrong biopic in which actor Ben Foster plays the disgraced cyclist, Gibney muses that, “Ben by all accounts does a great job. But I would argue that he doesn’t play Lance Armstrong as well as Lance Armstrong does.”

Gibney is among the wave of filmmakers whose documentaries hover between news and entertainment, a style he credits to Errol Morris and his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line. His fellow practitioners include the brothers Jarecki (Andrew who made The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and Eugene who made The Trials of Henry Kissinger) and Michael Winterbottom (The Road to Guantanamo, The Emperor’s New Clothes) as well as the old guard such as Michael Moore. Gibney’s own work has won him a slew of awards including an Oscar – in 2008 for Taxi to the Dark Side, an account of the consequences of torture in the “war on terror” – and a few notable enemies. 

Right now for instance, he’s the target on the Church of Scientology’s website, which depicts him as a religious bigot specialising in hatchet jobs. An earlier film about the disparity of wealth in the US, Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, earned the wrath of billionaire David Koch. Koch strongarmed the TV station that aired the film into allowing him a rebuttal, describing Park Avenue as “destructive” and “disappointing”. He hadn’t actually seen it at the time. 

And like almost everyone who has breached the citadel of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, Gibney’s film about the organisation, We Steal Secrets, copped flak from “the Assangistas” who would tell him to lay off their leader, that whatever his personal foibles, the mission was more important.

The audience want to see monsters, the subjects want to be portrayed as saints. What does the documentary-maker want? “To me saints and monsters are not useful; they’re divorced from us. Saints can do what they want, monsters don’t have anything to do with us.” What makes people interesting and what makes film interesting is ambiguity, nuance, the fibs we tell, how we justify ourselves. “Generally speaking,” he says of his subjects, “I’m trying to get them to tell their story the way they want to tell it.”

1 . Becoming a documentarian

Gibney came to documentary-making by a circuitous route. His father, a Boston journalist, had wanted him to become a reporter. He studied at Yale, became interested in film, went to UCLA to study cinema and ended up in a job with the Samuel Goldwyn company as a feature film editor.

Eventually it became frustrating trying to mend other people’s mistakes (“If you’re a fiction film editor you can’t fix a film in the cutting room; if the director’s fucked it up, or the writer, there’s not much you can do”). He had made documentaries in graduate school and one had won an award. It was about a Californian teacher who ran his classroom like a fictional country with people occupying roles as fat cat businessmen and journalists. Pretty soon the rot set in – the rich ganged up and took resources from the poor. The whole thing came to a head when a student/journalist wrote an article about a teacher who had slapped a student. The school principal stepped in and shut the country down. 

Gibney’s film on the experiment, The Ruling Classroom, contains all the themes of his later work – abuses of power, what he calls “noble-cause corruption” in which the larger good becomes more important than the means used to achieve it. But if he had his subject, getting finance for it was something else. Things were so bad that at one point he had to become a freelance writer – “It’s pretty bleak that you’d think that was a way of making money any more than documentary was.” 

Film work came Gibney’s way in dribs and drabs and one of his jobs was as a producer on a series of films about the blues – executive produced by Martin Scorsese. The directors were all fiction filmmakers, such as Wim Wenders and Mike Figgis, and they brought cinematic flair to what had become a conventional genre, more lecture than exploration. 

“That was my ‘aha’ moment,” Gibney says. “You could make documentaries that were both rigorous and respectful of the contradictions of everyday life but also were authored pieces, that had a style that felt true to the maker rather than to some dog-eared, public-affairs-documentary rule book. You could engage the full spectrum of the aesthetics of cinema – rather than just report.” 

Ironically, some of the things he disdained in those by-the-rule-book documentaries have found their way back into his films. Narration, for example, had once been seen as a crutch: “That’s how TV documentaries were made, you had some stentorian voice of God who laid down the soundtrack and then you used images to illustrate his voice … always his voice,” he acknowledges with a small smile. But as he’s found, sometimes you need a narrator because the story is complicated and the goodwill of the audience is at stake. He used to use actors but now he is the narrator – “it’s less pretentious”. 

On film, Gibney’s narration is more self-effacing than voice of God, and in person, too, he is mild of manner, focused, a listener. That must stand him in good stead behind the camera. He wants to establish though that he doesn’t employ any tricks in getting people to open up, he will tell them the type of film he plans and invite them to look at his past record. The question is why they agree to talk in the first place. How, for instance, did he get Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York who was brought down by a sex scandal? Spitzer had been the model of moral rectitude, the man who wanted to clean up Wall Street – his enemies all but danced on his grave when he was caught paying for prostitutes and became the subject of headlines such as “Luv Guv” and “Ho, No!” He resigned from office and refused all interviews until he turned up in Gibney’s Client 9 (the name he was known as in the police bust).

“I knew someone who had known Spitzer at Princeton, which got us in the door,” Gibney says. “And then it was a task of convincing him to appear, and the way we did it was to say look we’re doing this no matter what. Don’t you want to have your say so everybody else isn’t speaking for you – so the scandal doesn’t become the last word on Eliot Spitzer?”

So Spitzer did tell his story, even the excruciating bits – but at least he was a relatively straightforward subject. Dealing with Lance Armstrong proved trickier. In making his film about Armstrong, Gibney brought up the doping rumours that had dogged his career and Armstrong flatly denied them. Then, midway through filming, he went on Oprah and confessed that he had in fact used EPO and other banned substances for years. 

Another filmmaker might have thrown in the towel but Gibney, realising the story had new potential, went back and filmed part two – after the confession. “I told him, I have your original answers. So wouldn’t it be better for you to give me slightly different ones?” The result is not truth – Armstrong is in too deep – but a bizarre glimpse into high-level delusion. 

Gibney doesn’t seem fazed by being had by Armstrong. “It happens,” he says comfortably. “I’m not saying I encourage it! But I recognise it happens all the time.” People play to the camera, they use it for their own purposes. Spending long hours getting to know people can warp better judgement. That’s where good editors come in, he says, because they are the ruthless pair of eyes who only see what’s on camera. “And sometimes they see people playing you – playing me – in a way that I may not have seen. They pick up cues where someone is spinning a story.”

In Going Clear, one of three new Gibney films currently out (the other two are on Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and singer James Brown), he tackles Scientology. The people he interviews are past members – some of them occupied senior positions – and theirs is a sobering account of a paranoid institution with their tales of violence, intimidation and forced labour. A manic Tom Cruise pops up defending the church but if the stories of those on camera are to be believed, Cruise is as trapped in the prison of belief as they once were.

Based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same title, Going Clear also highlights Scientology’s outsize power. The church has just 50,000 members – “There are more Rastafarians in the United States than there are Scientologists,” Gibney observes – but more than $3 billion in assets. “They always have great real estate. And of course they’re tax exempt [being a registered church]. So it’s a smart strategy: you have an enormous amount of cash and a dwindling number of adherents to whom you have to administer.”

Gibney’s film is as measured as it’s possible to be but that hasn’t stopped attacks on him – with the church claiming that the people he spoke to had their own agendas. The claim tickles him. 

“ ‘So what if they did?’ would be my point of view,” he says, laughing. “I don’t present them in the film as objective sources. The Church of Scientology always says, ‘Well, how can you make a film about the church and only put these people in?’ I have two answers to that. One is, ‘Who says that I was making a film about the Church of Scientology? I was making a film maybe about these people.’ And second of all, I did ask people from the church to appear – and they declined. They always decline! That’s the truth.”

More seriously he notes that other films about Scientology have started from a premise of “look at those fucking nut jobs and aren’t they weird”. He focused instead on the church’s appeal, the self-help it offers in its early stages – and then examined how that can turn sour. “I wanted to talk to people who I thought were intelligent and discerning about how they got in, how they got lost, how they got out, that seemed to me more intriguing. And ultimately more meaningful.”

Gibney can see parallels between those in Going Clear and the subjects of his other films. 

Almost all his documentaries are concerned with people getting caught up in belief systems to the point that they condone things they would never have thought of doing. He’s fascinated by the psychological process that led there – “That belief that after all you’re not like all the other people.” Because you’re a member of a church. Or the leader of an international hacking group. Or the “sheriff of Wall Street”.

2 . Rich pickings

Given the daily news parade of fallen idols, there must be rich pickings for many years to come for Gibney. But he’s circumspect about future projects except to say he’s busy exploring episodic documentary among other things. (The international success of The Jinx, a six-part series about a real-life murder case, made it clear that the warnings about the public’s short attention span were overstated.) The opening up of television through outlets such as Netflix and streaming is a boon for his profession. There’s a tremendous appetite for content and he’s no longer dependent on the vagaries of advertisers to get his films shown. In the US, Going Clear screened on HBO, where it rated as one of the most watched documentaries ever – only second to a show about Beyoncé.

“When I started, TV had become a vast wasteland and very limited formally – there were a lot of things you weren’t allowed to say,” he observes. “With the internet, you’re allowed to say a lot more now. Maybe there’s a flip side to that – but it’s no longer about the lowest common denominator or about not being offensive. Places like HBO and Netflix want to lure you in with good programming. 

“There’s a belief that to get on TV now, you have to be great.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2015 as "Clear warning".

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Amruta Slee is a Sydney-based journalist.

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