Alex Gibney on Bullies, Military Torture and Scientology

Alex Gibney’s new documentary, Going Clear, caused a stir at the Sundance Film Festival and has prompted an official response from the film’s subject, the Church of Scientology. Picking fights with those in power is nothing new for Gibney. The Church of Scientology is just the most recent target. Gibney’s IMDB page reads like a hit list, documenting some of the recent years’s most public cases of corruption, betrayals of public trust and failed cover-ups: Enron. Eliot Spitzer. Lance Armstrong. The Roman Catholic Church. The U.S. Military. When I asked him why this theme is so constant in his work, his response was simple: “I don’st like bullies.”

Gibney’s Peabody-winning 2007 documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, brought to light damning documentation of the U.S. Military’s torture of prisoners. The film tied the abuses and subsequent cover-up to top officials in the Bush administration at a time when these details were still largely hidden from the public. Mea Maxima Culpa, which earned him a second Peabody in 2013, documented the Vatican’s cover-up of sexual abuse of deaf children. As with Taxi, the film made a case that the corruption went all the way to the top, ultimately holding Cardinal Ratzinger (later to become Pope Benedict) responsible for being the church’s assigned delegate for keeping these cases secret.

Going Clear will not be available to the general public until it airs on HBO in March, but early reports indicate that we can expect similarly strong allegations against the Church of Scientology. When I asked him in November if he was worried about blowback from addressing Hollywood’s connections to the organization, he responded, “It’s kind of a damn the torpedoes moment. You figure that if you do a good job and you’sre telling a story that’s attacking abuses of power, let the chips fall where they may.”

In addition to his work as a director and producer, Alex Gibney is also the President of Jigsaw Productions. The company produces Gibney’s feature documentaries, but has also expanded into making both fiction and non-fiction episodic television series. Gibney has recently involved his company in an innovative collaboration with The New Yorker and Amazon to create a new series, The New Yorker Presents with Gibney as one its executive producers. Approaching something like a highbrow variety show, the pilot is a potpourri of genres, including a short fiction film starring The Good Wife‘s Alan Cumming, a documentary directed by Jonathan Demme, an interview with Peabody-winner Maria Abramovic, and even a poem by Matthew Dickman.

The pilot is available to stream for free on Amazon Instant Video. Gibney was kind enough to talk to us about some his past films and explain why these stories mattered so much to him. He has more than 20 documentaries under his belt, and as an intro to his filmography, here are some of his reflections on four of movies beginning with 2014’s Mr. Dynamite.

On Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown (2014)

If Mick Jagger calls you and asks you to do a documentary about James Brown, there really isn’st another answer except for “yes!” I work with some very talented producers, and the first thing we do in a project like that is to say “Okay, let’s get all the clips we can.” And then I brought on board a talented writer named Christopher John Farley who also suggested some areas of inquiry that hadn’st much been looked into before, like the March Against Fear and James Brown’s role in it, which I wasn’st really aware of. And then it was like “Let’s reach out to as many people as we can, particularly the musicians. Let’s see where they are and let’s see if we can go talk to them.” I think the hardest part with something like James Brown is to find a focus, and to find a way of telling the story. And for us, that was two things. One was I didn’st want to tell a cradle to grave biography. We ultimately focused on the rise of James Brown. The other part was I thought it would be fun to make it a musical, so a lot of the story is actually told through song, and those two ideas in tandem gave us the key to unlock the mystery of how to tell the story.

On Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2013)

In the case of Mea Maxima Culpa, we spend much more time with the victims [than the perpetrators]. In this case, the victims – these men who were students at a deaf school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – found a way of fighting back in a way that I found very powerful, so Mea Maxima Culpa is really a film about fighting back. And of course it’s about power, and it certainly has a lot to say about “noble cause corruption.” But there’s a reason I ended that film with one of the deaf men putting his left hand over his ear and thrusting his fist into the sky, which is the deaf sign for deaf power. These guys fought back, and they were the weakest of the weak if you think about it. In some cases, the way the priest used to creep into their rooms at night and often would abuse the kids that he knew had parents who couldn’t sign so they couldn’t even tell their parents what was happening to them. He was a predator of the worst kind, preying on the weakest. And yet, somehow, over time, they found a way not only to process that pain, but to fight back. And some of them sued the Pope, the guy at the top who allowed this kind of gangsterism of pedophilia to continue. So, to me that’s what makes Mea Maxima Culpa so powerful—that these people who couldn’st speak ended up having the loudest voices.

On Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

What surprised me most in that film was to understand how the introduction of the willingness to torture people acted like the introduction of a very virulent virus. The permission for a few CIA agents to waterboard people spread throughout the entire system through something the psychologists call “Force Drift.” The idea being that the people felt they had permission to go beyond the bounds of normal interrogation and to keep pushing the limits and using more and more force in order to get information. It spread like a virus throughout the entire system and you can see very much, you talked, you know, you were talking earlier about the abuse of power, you can see how with a wink and a nod, people at the top of the system can give tacit permission to everybody down below to break the rules, to break the law, and to transgress the moral values that we’sre supposed to stand for. That was the most interesting and most surprising thing for me in terms of making that film – to see how that virus was introduced to the system and how it spread.

On Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

I included a small sequence from my favorite psychological experiment: the Milgram experiment. And that was called “Obedience.” What’s interesting about that is that so long as you have this guy in a white lab coat saying, “It’s okay, I’sll take responsibility. You can continue to administer those shocks,” that people then feel they’sre empowered or they’sre not bound by the same kind of personal morality that might have governed their actions. So they keep going up the line administering higher and higher shocks, and in Enron, through this kind of wild, free-market fundamentalism, the idea that the most aggressive, the most vicious kind of competition, even if it meant shutting off the lights in California, was good. Once you imbued that philosophy then anything went—anything goes. And that culture spread through Enron, again, very much like a virus. So much so that people’s own individual morality were soon left by the wayside and they felt they’sd been given permission by the people at the top to do whatever they needed to do to make money. It was the bottom line – the ultimate ascendency of the philosophy of the bottom line – that so long as you’sre making money, it’s good.

Stories that Matter Podcast: Alex Gibney (download .mp3 | subscribe with iTunes | full text transcript)