A lazy, sensationalistic piece of cinematic journalism based on a masterpiece of narrative reportage, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear takes the revelations of Lawrence Wright’s work exposing the inner workings of the Church of Scientology and twists them into two hours of talking-head interviews, reenactments, and pointless scaremongering. The prolific director reliably releases two or three features a year on infamous celebrities or provocative subjects, and his approach is fluid, sweeping, and at this point dispiritingly formulaic. Gibney’s ambition is to create the definitive documentary on each of his subjects; as such, his films refuse to dwell on the ambiguities or hypocrisies that might make them more worthwhile than a half hour on YouTube and Wikipedia.
Wright’s presence in Going Clear is a persistent reminder of what the film could have been. Early on, he declares an interest in systems of belief with a “crushing certainty that erases doubt,” but the film’s synopsis of Scientology is delivered with a sneer. The religion’s duped apostates speak of signing billion-year contracts, spending vast sums of money on elevating the church’s baroque hierarchy of spiritual achievement, and being treated cruelly as lesser acolytes (John Travolta, Tom Cruise) are festooned with honors intended to keep them espousing the religion’s benefits. Wright explains how L. Ron Hubbard transformed his work in science fiction into a formal set of beliefs, and the film quickly reminds us that Hubbard was “prone to invention,” dredging up inflated war stories and some heinous treatment of his lovers and children.
The director offers a serviceable summary of how the Church of Scientology functions, but doesn’t do much to explain what it’s like to be a Scientologist from day to day, or why the group has any allure in the first place. Instead, he’s quick to cut to the greatest-hits reel: horror stories about forced labor, battles with the IRS, speculations on Travolta’s dedication to the church, and a lengthy chapter on Cruise’s sex life and a few of his more bizarre public appearances. By its ending, Going Clear is hopelessly caught between ridicule and portent, as Gibney outlines the church’s plans to stay afloat financially by expanding globally. It’s difficult to parse whether the viewer should be fearful of Scientology’s ambitions, or merely be in thrall to two hours spent rubbernecking at a sideshow curiosity.
An hour of drawling voices and dazed, swaying bodies, Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas is the bracing result of a summer of nights spent last year at the intersection of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem. Allah’s aesthetic is bold: He presents his images (captured with a handheld camera) in slow motion, as a collage of disembodied audio interviews with the corner’s regulars plays over the visuals. It’s a stunning formal gambit, expressing the marginalization of his subjects through a heavily stylized use of their bodies and voices. By disconnecting sound and image, Allah heightens the reality of both: rookie cops pose by police cars (in images redolent of Spike Lee films) as voices speak about rotating in and out of jail; smoke bellows luxuriously out of mouths as we hear talk of K2, a smokable form of incense that has become a sensation in the neighborhood. Some of this content is harsh and upsetting, but Allah is a lively presence throughout the film, and he brings out the life in people brought down to a zombielike existence. We catch him in glimpses as his camera reflects off the glass of a bus enclosure, but mostly we hear him. “I’m not judging your situation. At least I’m not trying to,” he says to one of the corner’s denizens. To another, he explains that his intent is “to just kinda look at it [the situation on the streets] and accept it for what it is.” Allah’s commentary helps to propel the film’s social commentary, which culminates in the infamous video of Eric Garner’s death but also, more subtly, weaves gospel music into the audio track. As an experiment in consciousness-raising, Field Niggas is lucid and potent.
White Out, Black In was the last and strangest film I saw at True/False, the sort of sublime oddity that exemplifies the festival’s vision even as it divides audiences. The film would play out like an alien transmission even if it didn’t contain a few of them. A chimeric work of hybrid cinema, it follows a few victims of police violence and institutional racism outside of Brazil’s capital, Brasilia. One is an amputee who tinkers with futuristic technology that will allow him greater control of his metal leg. Another is confined to a wheelchair, and DJs a pirate radio show from his basement when he’s not recording musicians who will participate in a mysterious mixtape. Both live in an impoverished town rendered dystopian by the sound of sirens and curfew announcements blaring over loudspeakers. A third figure seems to live in a parallel future: Most of his time is spent in a shipping container that seems to be hurtling through a tear in the time/space continuum. They’re all, somehow, destined to work together to send a transmission to the capital that will serve as some sort of sonic boom and destroy the city.
Though working with spare sets and low-budget materials, director Adirley Queirós creates an uncanny world. The specifics of his social message, alluded to by characters utterly isolated from their nation and their cultural interests, leak out in dribs and drabs as characters recall the 1980s police invasion of a popular dance club outside of Brasilia. Black partygoers were ordered to leave the club (the title is an empowered reversal of police orders), and after heinous beatings, they were left alienated from and unsupported by the state. Queirós’s film, then, takes the form of a fantastical and extremely elliptical revenge fantasy, with an apocalyptic finale presented through a montage of animated drawings and DIY sound effects. A full quarter of White Out, Black In is simultaneously lethargic and inscrutable, but the remainder is captivating and utterly singular.
True/False ran from March 5—8.