Los Angeles -- If controversy sells, HBO may suddenly have a hit in Alex Gibney’s new documentary about Scientology and renegades who left it behind.
On Friday, the Church of Scientology took aim at the movie — which its members and leaders have not yet seen — with full-page newspaper advertisements in The New York Times and elsewhere detailing what it says are journalistic lapses by Mr. Gibney.
In a pointed reference to a much-challenged magazine article about a campus rape at the University of Virginia, the ads ask whether the movie, called “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” is “a Rolling Stone/UVA Redux.” The film is based on a book written by Lawrence Wright, who is a producer of the documentary.
The critique guarantees a combustible debut for a movie that is scheduled to make its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25, and will screen in a small number of theaters before reaching a wide audience on HBO, beginning on March 16.
The church’s forceful response risks calling attention to what might have seemed like old news. Scientology has already been closely investigated by Mr. Wright and others. A similar campaign in 2013 by SeaWorld against the documentary “Blackfish,” about orcas in captivity, did nothing to dampen the film’s popularity when it was broadcast later on CNN. But media flare-ups around accusations of sexual misconduct by Woody Allen and Bill Cosby — denied by both — have also shown that past claims can ignite new problems.
“Going Clear” arrives at Sundance as one of a cluster of volatile documentaries. While part happenstance, film agents say directors are leaning harder into controversy-courting topics as a way to cut through the clutter of television and video-on-demand services, where a lot of these films now primarily play.
Sundance bills “The Hunting Ground” as a “startling expose of rape crimes.” Marc Silver’s “3 1/2 Minutes” is a topical examination of racism in the American criminal justice system, while “Pervert Park” works to humanize pedophiles.
“Among documentaries, we’re seeing an increased shift toward topics that punch you in the gut,” said John Cooper, the Sundance director.
In its ad and in an interview with representatives, the church said Mr. Gibney had rejected its 12 requests for an opportunity to address accusations, while asking instead for interviews with the church leader, David Miscavige, and celebrity adherents that include Tom Cruise, John Travolta and others.
In a statement, Mr. Gibney on Thursday said he had “requested interviews with various people — including current church members and officials — who could shed light on specific incidents discussed in the film.” All of those asked, he added, “either declined, did not respond or set unreasonable conditions.”
Separately, HBO said in a statement that it was customary in making documentaries to request on-camera interviews from those involved in relevant events. “This film identifies those that were approached,” the statement added.
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Speaking on Tuesday, several church representatives said the refusal to disclose the film’s assertions was unusual and unfair. “In my 40 years of experience, this has never happened,” said Anthony Michael Glassman, a lawyer who has represented Scientology in media-related cases.
The church representatives said they were making no attempt to block the Sundance screening. But they said they were entitled to address claims in a movie that was built heavily around on-camera interviews with Paul Haggis, Marty Rathbun, Michael Rinder, Jason Beghe and other former adherents who have painted a picture of declining membership and abusive practices within the church.
Interviewed last week, Mr. Gibney said his film was still undergoing a legal review, and that a version shared by digital link at that point might change slightly. He said he was confident of the film’s solidity, but acknowledged having received sharp queries from church representatives who “seem to be warning us, but warning us without knowing” what is in the movie.
Mr. Gibney said he had been working on the film for about two years. Scientology representatives said he first broached the subject of interviewing Mr. Miscavige and others last October.
A prolific documentarian, Mr. Gibney won an Oscar in 2008 for “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about the use of torture by the United States in the war on terror. He said he had frequently been asked to explore Scientology as a subject, but “actually wasn’t that interested.” He became intrigued with Mr. Wright’s book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief,” which was published in January 2013.
Most alluring, said Mr. Gibney, was the book’s underlying theme, which, in Mr. Gibney’s words, explores “how people become prisoners of faith in various ways.” (Mr. Gibney describes himself as “very much a lapsed Catholic.”)
The film includes a small amount of dramatic reconstruction, some harking back to the early days of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. It also uses clips that were licensed, were in the public domain, or were within the bounds of fair use, Mr. Gibney said. Some wariness surrounds any prerelease discussion of the clips’ precise content. Mr. Gibney and HBO have severely restricted access to the film, to reduce risk of an attempt to block its use of clips before the Sundance premiere.
Like Mr. Wright’s book, the documentary depends heavily on interviews with Scientology dropouts whose filmed accounts mostly track with earlier descriptions of claimed abuse, both physical and emotional, that were compiled by Mr. Wright.
Their impact is enhanced by the power of film, however.
“In the book, you have to take my word for it,” said Mr. Wright, who will join the film’s promotion at Sundance. “In the documentary, you get the chance to judge for yourself.”
(Mr. Wright extensively engaged with Scientology officials while writing his book.)
Speaking by telephone last week, Mr. Rinder said he had participated as an interview subject — and would join the Sundance contingent — to prompt change within Scientology. “I hope this movie increases public pressure for the church to change its abusive practices,” he said.
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Mr. Rinder mentioned specifically the practice of “disconnection,” under which members of the church break contact with friends, family members or associates who are deemed to have become hostile toward Scientology.
Monique E. Yingling, a lawyer for the church, said shunning was practiced by a number of religions, has been upheld as legally permissible by courts and, in the case of Scientology, is reserved for those who have started “attacking the religion.”
Ms. Yingling and others further challenged claims, reflected in both the book and the film, that church membership had dwindled in recent years. While citing no specific number, Ms. Yingling said adherents of the church number in the millions. Karin Pouw, a church spokeswoman, said Scientology had been growing in the years since Mr. Rathbun and Mr. Rinder left (Mr. Rathbun in 2004, Mr. Rinder in 2007), as it opened new facilities around the world.
Ms. Pouw and Ms. Yingling said the church and its leaders did not abuse members.
Still nine days from a public showing, Mr. Gibney’s film has clearly widened the gap between adherents and apostates. In its newspaper advertisement, the church, without mentioning names, characterized some people who had contributed to Mr. Wright’s book as having been expelled from the Scientology organization for malfeasance.
Speaking last week, Mr. Rinder — who was not named in the ad — had already described the church as “a parasite on society.”
Mr. Gibney, for his part, declined to say Scientology was the toughest subject he has tackled in a filmmaking career that has examined government abuse in “Taxi to the Dark Side,” financial shenanigans in “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and a clerical sex scandal in “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.”
But, he said, “it’s definitely in the top five.”
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