Both documentaries ask the same question: What makes people join a group with negative, even violent aspects? For Alex Gibney, the director of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (inspired by Lawrence Wright's book of almost the same name), the group is the wealthy, secretive Church of Scientology, which has been accused of bankrupting and brainwashing its members. For Soren Steen Jespersen and Nasib Farah, the Danish co-directors of Warriors from the North, the group is al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based Islamic terrorists who openly recruit Somali expats in Denmark (and elsewhere) and train them to be suicide bombers.
The films reach the same chilling conclusion: If people feel disaffected enough, they will succumb to the allure of an organization that makes them feel included and gives them purpose – no matter what unpleasant or horrific things it also does. (Going Clear is now playing in selected theatres. Warriors from the North just won the best mid-length documentary award at Toronto's Hot Docs festival; it's now playing at festivals around the world and its directors are hoping for a North American release.)
"In a world that seems to be homogenizing or overlooking many of us, it's natural to run to a place that gives you some sense of distinction and identity," Gibney told me recently in Toronto. "Scientology – or any blind faith – replaces your own judgment. That's liberating, because you don't have to think for yourself. Doubt is uncomfortable."
Gibney, 61, won an Oscar for his 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, about U.S. torture tactics; he also made, among many other films, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer; and The Armstrong Lie, about sports doping. He wears a trim beard, a shaved head and serious glasses, and his most consistent expression is a furrowed brow, as if he's permanently formulating a question.
Going Clear focuses on a handful of people who left Scientology after years of devoted membership – among them, Paul Haggis, the Canadian-born, Oscar-winning screenwriter/director (Crash, Million Dollar Baby); Marty Rathbun, once the church's second-in-command; and Mike Rinder, a former church spokesman. Taken together, their stories have the structure – and the feel – of a horror movie: An innocent person is lured in, is made to feel better, is exposed to some weird stuff, sticks around longer than he should and finally runs for his life. (Scientology's most glittering poster boys, Tom Cruise and John Travolta, declined to participate, as did Cruise's ex-wives Nicole Kidman and Katie Holmes.)
It's the sticking-around part of each story that grabs Gibney the most – he's fascinated by how easily some people can manipulate others, and how willing we are to be manipulated. His subjects admit to witnessing and doing appalling things in the name of Scientology. But even after they realize the extent of the church's abuses they're reluctant to leave, because it has become a part of their identity. "The bars are open but they won't leave," Gibney says. "That's a pretty good prison."
The subjects in Warriors from the North are even more isolated than those in Going Clear, and the results even more tragic. Co-director Nasib Farah was born in Somalia; when civil war turned his country to chaos, his family moved to allegedly safe Denmark, he said in a joint interview with Jespersen in Toronto. But he calls his neighbourhood on Copenhagen's outskirts "a ghetto." Its residents have the highest unemployment and the lowest rate of education in the city. About five years ago, after two young men Farah grew up with joined al-Shabaab, then killed themselves and others in suicide attacks, Farah teamed up with Jespersen to make a film exploring why.
Farah is dark-skinned, dark-eyed, soft-spoken, shy; Jespersen is grey-haired, pink-cheeked, blue-eyed, animated. But they share an urgency of purpose. "One of the young men, Abdi, blew up a medical school graduation, and the footage was on the Internet, but no Danish media had shown the least interest," Jespersen says. "Even though he's Danish citizen, he's a Somali who killed Somalis in Somalia. So the Danish media didn't care."
Jespersen and Farah found subjects who'd joined and then left al-Shabaab, both in Denmark and Somalia, and spent months gaining their trust. The subjects describe how al-Shabaab members insinuate themselves into young men's lives, cooking for them, taking them to mosques, taking them seriously and then leading them toward the idea of jihad. It's a distressingly short journey.
"If you're as messed up as I was, if you're not satisfied with your life and have no pride, and then you begin to believe 100 per cent in something, it doesn't matter what it is," one subject says. "You get a whole other feeling, and you don't care about dying." That's a pretty succinct explanation.
All three filmmakers hope their work will shake up the status quo. "It would be nice if people in the U.S. rattled the cages of the Internal Revenue Service and got them to reconsider Scientology's tax-exempt status," Gibney says. (Not surprisingly, the church has attacked Gibney in full-page newspaper ads and slammed him and his journalist father in online "documentaries." Travolta has also publicly criticized the film – sight unseen, of course.)
Jespersen and Farah hope the Danish and other governments will soften their hard-line stance on ex-terrorists, and shift the focus from arresting and deporting them to addressing the conditions that make them susceptible to recruitment. When Warriors had its premiere, at the National Library of Denmark, the minister of justice, a noted hard-liner, attended. During a postfilm debate, she suddenly began talking about trying to understand immigrant frustrations and to better include them in society. "We were like, 'What is she saying?'" Jespersen recalls, grinning. "She was saying all the stuff we wanted her to say. The next day she resigned. Not to be too proud of ourselves, but I think our film opened a new discourse."
The filmmakers also hope that these stories "rattle around in their viewers' own consciences," as Gibney puts it, and cause us to examine our own actions. "The problem of the Danish society is that we have this notion of ourselves as open, with freedom of speech, of religion, of sexual preference," Jespersen says. "It's actually difficult for us to be critical of ourselves. To think, maybe we're not that good at integration? We don't want to see that.
"When you think, 'I've got it all together,' and then somebody comes along and says, 'No, you're don't, you're screwing it up,'" he continues, "you can either react with aggression, or you can think, 'Why am I? What can I do to change?' That's the process we're hoping to push."
"It's easy to say that Scientology is a cult, end of story," Gibney says. "But there is a message in there for all of us, about the damage that can be done when you go down any path where you substitute belief for thought."