Sundance: Scientology Film Subjects Called "Brave," Get Standing Ovation

Alex Gibney Sundance - H 2015
Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

The controversial film premiered to a Hollywood crowd Sunday.

Scientology documentary Going Clear premiered Sunday at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival to a standing ovation from a crowd that included several Hollywood luminaries.

The Alex Gibney-directed film, based on Lawrence Wright's controversial book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, was one of the hottest tickets at the festival. It drew several Hollywood names, including Tobey Maguire, Alec Baldwin, Jason Sudeikis and AMC exec Charlie Collier. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was also spotted in the audience.

The film, focusing on the power of Scientology and its controversial leader David Miscavige, as well the religion's ties to Hollywood, received a partial standing ovation after it screened, but it got a full standing ovation when the film's participants appeared in front of the crowd.

Wright spoke after the screening and said he had faced "predominantly legal" harassment since penning the book. "[But what I've faced is] nothing compared to what the people who left the church have gone through," he said.

Wright acknowledged that the Constitution protects religious freedom, adding: "But there is nothing in the Constitution that allows people to surrender their freedom."

One of the most emotional parts of the movie is the story of Spanky Taylor, who was John Travolta's liaison at the Church until she broke away in the late 1970s. Taylor was kept separated from her newborn, and one of the film's more thrilling moments is the account of her escape from a compound with her baby.

When Taylor showed up as a "surprise" guest at the end of the screening, her now-adult daughter in tow, the crowd greeted them with rapturous applause.

"I had no idea what a charlatan he had been his entire life," Taylor said of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and how she fell under his sway. "We were taught to believe he had all the answers. You are wholly indoctrinated."

Some had speculated that Scientology officials might picket the screening or distribute a church response to the claims in the film. But there was no church presence visible at the screening. However, Scientology did run an ad in The New York Times in the run-up to the festival comparing the allegations in Gibney's film to the problematic allegations of rape at the University of Virginia made by Rolling Stone magazine.

See more The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2015

After the screening, outspoken church critic Tony Ortega, who is featured in the film, said he and a fellow film subject, former high-ranking church executive Mike Rinder, "were both photographed by the same private investigator at the airport [upon arriving at the fest]."

Rinder, another former church official/current critic who is featured in the film, said attorneys don't go after the Church of Scientology because it would take an entire career of litigating to make any headway. He said that Scientologists are in a "prison of belief" and unable to leave.

Gibney, speaking after the film, said that the filmmakers reached out to the major networks to license footage but they all refused out of fear of the church. The director also publicly thanked his subjects for their bravery in speaking out. "For a film like this to get made, people have to come forward," he said. "That is the only way to encourage the end of abuses."

Rinder said he hopes that public awareness can effect change within the church. "Do I hope that there is more media to step forward and report what is really going on? Absolutely," he said.

The Church of Scientology sent THR a statement regarding the making of Going Clear that read: "As we stated in our New York Times ad on January 16, Alex Gibney's film is Rolling Stone/University of Virginia redux. Despite repeated requests over three months, Mr. Gibney and HBO refused to provide the Church with any of the allegations in the film so it could respond. They also refused to speak with any of the 25 Church representatives, former spouses and children of their sources who flew to New York to meet and provide them with firsthand knowledge regarding assertions made in Mr. Wright’s book and presumably in Mr. Gibney's film. Their sources are the usual collection of obsessive, disgruntled former Church members kicked out as long as 30 years ago for malfeasance, who have a documented history of making up lies about the Church for money. The Church is committed to free speech. However, free speech is not a free pass to broadcast or publish false information."

Jan. 25, 8:43 p.m. A previous version of this story identified Tony Ortega as a former church member. THR regrets the error.

Jan. 25, 10:36 p.m. Added statement from the Church of Scientology. 

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