Makers of Sundance hit Scientology film fire back at controversial group's critics

Pedestrians walking past the Church of Scientology along Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California in a 2012 photo. The controversial group lashed out this week at Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a documentary film about it at the
Pedestrians walking past the Church of Scientology along Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California in a 2012 photo. The controversial group lashed out this week at Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a documentary film about it at the Sundance Film Festival, calling it false and based on "obsessive, disgruntled former Church members." -- PHOTO: AFP 

PARK CITY, Utah (AFP) - The team behind a new Scientology documentary making a splash at the Sundance film festival hit back Tuesday after leaders of the controversial group slammed the movie as one-sided.

The firestorm erupted after the world premiere in Park City of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, directed by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney.

Based on a book by Pulitzer prize-winning writer Lawrence Wright, the movie makes allegations about the Church of Scientology and blames high-profile members Tom Cruise and John Travolta for not exposing alleged abuses.

"We hold people like Tom Cruise and John Travolta and others responsible for not demanding change inside that church," Wright told industry journal Variety.

"By not speaking out, it's a kind of an endorsement and I think that's why we're right and properly critical," Gibney added.

Sunday's screening in the Utah mountain resort was held amid tight security and speculation about possible protests, although in the end nothing materialised.

In a statement issued Monday, the church took direct aim at the filmmakers and HBO, which is set to air the film.

"The accusations made in the film are entirely false and alleged without ever asking the church," it said, noting that it had taken out a full-page ad in the New York Times last month to denounce the movie.

"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," added the statement.

It called Gibney's sources "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".

Gibney rebuffed the suggestion that he had not reached out to the church for comment to be included in the film.

"We reached out for interviews with the people that were relevant to our story. Scientology wanted to send us a delegation of 25 unidentified individuals, presumably to smear the people in our film," he told Variety. "I wasn't interested in that."

Sunday night's screening of Going Clear was packed, leaving many festival-goers literally out in the cold.

The film includes interviews with former church members, and raises questions about the treatment of members and the organisation's nonprofit, tax-exempt status.

It also recounts Cruise's marriage to fellow A-lister Nicole Kidman in detail.

A former top church official claims in the film that Cruise distanced himself from Scientology while married to Kidman, and alleges the church ordered him to "facilitate the breakup" of the couple.

Journalist Tony Ortega, an acknowledged expert on Scientology, said the church was making a mistake by trying to smear the filmmakers.

"We have to think that's going to backfire in Hollywood, where these are respected figures, and there is going to be some serious discussion about this movie among the people of film-land," he said in a blog post.

"Just keep smearing people, Scientology. At some point, Tom Cruise and John Travolta are going to have to answer for that, along with all the rest."

Gibney won an Academy Award in 2008 for best documentary feature for his film Taxi To the Dark Side. He was also nominated in 2006 for Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room. He is also known for 2013's The Armstrong Lie," about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.