TORONTO - Canadian director Paul Haggis says he hopes the recent HBO documentary "Going Clear" is bringing light to the "truth" about the Church of Scientology.
"I'm very proud to have been a part of that," the former Scientologist said of Alex Gibney's acclaimed film, which set viewership records for HBO in March.
"I hope it makes a difference. I hope people see it and open their eyes faster than I did. It took a long time for me to see the truth. Shame on me.
"But when I finally did, I felt you can't just see something and not say something.
"Certainly, I felt like I had to speak out. I didn't have the option to disappear like so many others had."
Gibney's film alleges a history of abuse and exploitation within the Church. Adherents were allegedly subjected to beatings, withering verbal abuse and even imprisonment as punishment for supposed offences.
Members who decide to leave the Church are subjected to intimidation and harassment, Gibney's film alleges, and swiftly isolated from any family members who remain faithful to Scientology.
Haggis — an owner of two Oscars and Emmys — spent 35 years as a member of the Church of Scientology.
He has said his eventual departure was prompted by the Church's support for Proposition 8, the political initiative to ban gay marriage in California.
Father to two lesbian daughters, Haggis was outraged and derived no reassurance from the Church's responses to his concerns. (The Church denies taking a position either way on Proposition 8 and has maintained that it doesn't discriminate based on sexual orientation.)
So Haggis left the Church — and he didn't do so quietly. He became a key figure in Lawrence Wright's 2011 New Yorker article on Scientology and subsequent book "Going Clear," which formed the basis for Gibney's documentary.
"People said that was brave," Haggis said. "I don't think it was brave. When you have to do something, you don't have a choice. It must be. Despite whatever the consequences are."
So far, those consequences have included persistent attacks on Haggis's character online.
The Church of Scientology-run publication Freedom Magazine has profiles of the 62-year-old headlined "The Hypocrite of Hollywood" and "The Many Personas of Paul Haggis," which portray the "Crash" director as an opportunist who used Scientology to further his career (the articles also issue more petty insults, calling Haggis "doughy" and "pasty.")
In another Freedom video, Haggis's sister, Kathy, speaks out against him.
When given the chance to comment, a representative for Scientology provided links to articles and videos about Haggis, one of which alleged that Haggis had not been a member in more than two decades.
The Church of Scientology has also dismissed the "Going Clear" documentary as a "one-sided false diatribe," built on the testimony of "bitter, vengeful apostates." The Church also alleges director Gibney didn't present the film's allegations to them for response.
Haggis, meanwhile, alleges that the Church of Scientology uses its vast resources and reputation for litigiousness to intimidate media outlets and even publishers.
Wright's book was never published here, and HBO Canada opted not to air the documentary. (Instead, the film received a limited theatrical run and VOD release in Canada.)
"It is kind of remarkable that they still have enough power to keep books from being published and movies from being seen," he said.
"They (get) lots of column inches to say the same (B.S.) lies over and over again, and to say all their critics are liars and criminals. Really, all of them?
"Media companies are so scared of being sued that they're careful with it," he added.
"But I think it's changing. We're talking about it now — and 10 years ago, that wouldn't have happened."
Further, he adds, the online attacks do more damage to the Church's reputation than his own.
"You don't think that makes you look really bad trying to slander me in that way?" he said.
"I'm an imperfect human being. And I've made many, many mistakes in my life. So you can absolutely publicize any of those.
"But this, really, (you're) thinking that makes you look good?"