AFS Grant Winner Over the Rainbow Explores Scientology Beyond the Drama
Finding empathy where there is none
A woman walks down a busy street. You've seen people like her before. With a cigarette clamped between two fingers, she shambles down the sidewalk, awkwardly swaying as if dancing to a song only she can hear; having a conversation with herself as if there's no one else to listen. She exists in her own world, like the subjects of Jeffrey Peixoto's documentary Over the Rainbow, which explores the lives of Scientologists; their relationships, their idiosyncrasies, and their need for connection. But this isn't really a movie about Scientology. "It's really using Scientology as a lens to look at the world," said Peixoto, a recipient of the Austin Film Society's filmmaking grant. "I was most interested in the human need that leads to Scientology or Christianity or internet communities or ..." He continued like this for a moment in a voice that's quiet and deliberate, not unlike his documentary. "Or psychotherapy or yoga support groups or film societies ...."
Over the Rainbow is one of three films playing as part of Austin Film Society's Doc Days program made by AFS Grant recipients (the others, What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? by Roberto Minervini, who received a grant in 2010 for his West Texas road trip The Passage, and 2018 grant-winning Caballerango by Juan Pablo González, screen Saturday at 5:30pm and Sunday at 3:30pm, respectively). Peixoto said Austin and AFS were integral to the making of this documentary. "AFS has always been very supportive of me and my work," he said. "It made a big difference really early on, before very many people were involved, to receive the AFS Grant."
His film is a meditative and occasionally jarring look at the daily lives of a handful of Scientologists, exploring their beliefs (like the ability to recall past lives) and their banal melodramas (such as familial disagreements). In recent years, there has been a proliferation of books, documentaries, and television docuseries about Scientology – the origins, its infamous founder, the dubious secrecy, and treatment (or lack thereof) of those with mental illness. Over the Rainbow trusts that, by now, the viewer is well-versed in the mechanisms of the religion. "With all the other media that had come out about this subject, nothing was really showing me what I wanted to see," Peixoto explained. "So I eventually decided that I had to make that movie myself – the movie that I wanted to see." In doing so, Peixoto hopes that he's showing audiences "something that they had never seen before." He may be right.
Over the Rainbow is intimate, concerned more with the details of individuals' relationships to their beliefs than with Scientology itself. Above all else, it humanizes the subjects in a way that other Scientology documentaries have not. For Peixoto, the documentary is something of a thesis, calling it "everything I have to say about religion and human need."
In spite of its intimacy, Peixoto believes that seeing Over the Rainbow on the biggest screen possible is crucial to the viewing experience. "I hope that [viewers] have anxiety attacks," Peixoto says. When asked to expand upon that idea, Peixoto explained: "The movie is talking about Scientology and belief systems and animals and the internet, but it's really just trying to get at you, the audience. It's trying to put you in the mindset of the people that are on the screen. It's also trying to force you to reflect upon your own religion or your own purpose. That is a scary enterprise."
Ultimately, Peixoto said he hopes audiences can see themselves in the subjects of Over the Rainbow, however alien their beliefs may seem. "I think people have a lot of preconceptions about Scientology, and certainly people who were working on the movie had preconceptions of Scientology," said Peixoto. What he added next was almost an afterthought, but wildly profound: "I think that empathy is only meaningful if it's directed at the un-empathetic."
The Austin Film Society presents AFS Doc Days
May 30-June 2 at AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35. Tickets, info, and a full schedule at www.austinfilm.org.
AFS Doc Days presents Over the Rainbow, Sat., June 1, 3:15pm @AFS Cinema, with director Jeffrey Peixoto in attendance.