Bohemian Rhapsody was harmed during the making of this' />
Alex Gibney’s documentary on Scientology reveals the dark side of the celebrity sanctioned religion. The director talks to Peter Calder

The new documentary by the prolific Alex Gibney should come with an advisory notice: "Warning: Bohemian Rhapsody was harmed during the making of this film." Queen's high-camp and purely joyous quasi-operatic masterpiece sustains some pretty severe damage during a sequence in which it is the soundtrack to the creepiest game of musical chairs you've ever seen.

The game takes place in a "re-education camp" for officials of the Church of Scientology whose loyalty to the organisation has come under suspicion. Known as "The Hole", it consists of two large ant-infested trailer homes in which internees are deprived of sleep and served slop for food, sometimes having to eat from the floor.

Yet in the film, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, one such internee tells Gibney that they were so controlled that they never considered escaping. As for that musical chairs game, the last person sitting gets to stay - the rest are exiled.

Lawrence Wright, whose 2013 book (of almost the same name; it inserts the word "Hollywood" after "Scientology") was the basis of Gibney's film, observes that the fact that people were fighting to stay was the hardest thing for him to understand. That's where the phrase "the prison of belief" came from, and it was that phrase that fired Gibney's imagination.

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Scientology has been subjected to some pretty serious journalistic analysis over the years, notably in two hour-long documentaries (in 2007 and 2010) by reporter John Sweeney, made for the BBC's Panorama series (both are on YouTube). But Gibney, speaking by phone from New York, says that he was interested less in the rights and wrongs of the church's actions than in the way that "very smart and discerning people get seduced by a belief system".

"They get so deep into it that they end up doing or endorsing things that they would never have imagined doing or endorsing before that. I was also interested in the process by which they get out. So I guess in a way it was more of a psychological journey."

The director, whose credits include the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side; We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room has shone a light on a church before: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God in 2012 tracked a protest by four deaf men who had been sexually abused as boys by Catholic priests.

Here though, his focus is less on criminality than on the experiences of those who have left the Church of Scientology of what it was like to be in it. And he's lined up some impressive talent, notably Mark Rathbun and Mike Rinder, former senior church executives in the PR arm of the church. Both admit to deliberate and vindictive campaigns of lying, harassment and intimidation - both of renegade church members and external critics.

Another major informant is Paul Haggis, the Canadian writer of Oscar-winners Crash (which he also directed) and Million Dollar Baby, an active member of the church for 35 years until 2009. He recalls being told when he was 21 in 1974 that "if you gave [the church] all your money, they'll make anything possible in your life".

Money certainly seems to be a major thread in the fabric of the Scientology story, not least because the church, which has at least US$3 billion in assets, has enjoyed tax-exempt status since 1993 after it buried the IRS in more than 2400 law suits and had US$1 billion in back taxes wiped.

The religion was founded in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, who had been a prolific writer for pulp (mainly sci-fi) fiction magazines in the 1930s. But his dreams were bigger: his second wife, Sara, in personal writings uncovered by Gibney, remembered Hubbard saying that "the only way to make any real money is to have a religion".

The religion he created was, by any standards, a bizarre one, based as it is on the story of one Xenu, the tyrannical overlord of a galactic confederacy who, 75 million years ago, dropped billions of his people on volcanoes and killed them with hydrogen bombs. The spirits of these aliens infest humans, causing spiritual harm, from which only a multi-stage (and very expensive) process known as auditing can rescue them.

Auditing, a melange of cod-Freudian psychobabble that one interviewee in the film calls "the psychological equivalent of folk art", is, in Gibney's view "a mixture of religious fervour, con-artistry and classic American self-help mania". But he has no problem with that.

"If people choose to believe in Xenu the galactic overlord and body thetans I don't have a problem with it. As [Sylvia] 'Spanky' Taylor, [an ex-member who was the personal liaison to the celebrated Scientologist John Travolta] said. 'It's not the creed but the deed'.

"The way they take advantage of people financially and their doctrine of cruelty towards their critics and even their own adherents is what concerns me. I'm not really interested in the distinction between a cult and a religion. I'm more interested in whether or not an organisation is violating fundamental human rights."

The Hollywood aspect is an important one in the film. The most famous Scientologist of all, Tom Cruise, puts in several appearances in footage culled from various sources and Gibney says that he is "absolutely critical" to the operation because he gives members a sense that they are rubbing shoulders with celebrity.

"Hubbard, as a writer, understood the power of an actor to carry a good story. In America in particular, but probably worldwide, the most compelling popular religion is celebrity and Hubbard understood that very well. What the stars give Scientology is like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval."

Several interviewees say Cruise and Travolta, among others, are held captive by the threat that details of personal disclosures made during auditing might be leaked. "There's a carrot and a stick," says Gibney. "The church possesses a lot of secrets about Travolta's private life that they could reveal - they have revealed those secrets about other, less famous people. That's the stick. The carrot is that the church acts as a kind of policeman. If they feel that people are unfairly treating Travolta, they'll go after them. It works both ways to keep Travolta inside the prison of belief."

He says he hopes the film will give some comfort to people who have left and are afraid of speaking out.

"But more broadly speaking, I think this idea of the prison of belief is deep-seated in Scientology but it's something we can all look at and think about in regard to our own beliefs, be they religious or political.

"We can all enter into a place of blind faith where we substitute reason and doubt with what [Lawrence Wright] calls terrifying certainty. That can sometimes lead us to a nasty place. When you believe that the positive end of your belief system justifies ruthless means, it can be pretty nasty."

Who: Alex Gibney
What: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Where and when: New Zealand International Film Festival. Auckland - Civic, Sunday July 19, 11am; SkyCity Theatre, Saturday July 25, 10.30am and Tuesday July 28, 1.30pm. Wellington - Embassy Theatre, Sunday July 26, 11am, Thursday July 30, 1pm; Roxy Cinema, Monday July 27, 6.30pm; Penthouse, Wednesday August 5, 8.30pm.

- TimeOut