Will Allen provides a portrait of a cult from the inside in “Holy Hell,” a documentary that’s been in the making for far longer than any Kubrick film was—though Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series still has it beat. Allen was in effect the cameraman of the group—the Buddhafield, as it was dubbed by its leader, a fellow named Michel—for much of its history, and it’s the footage he shot over more than two decades, interspersed with excerpts from interviews with ex-members he filmed more recently as well as a creepy present-day postscript, that makes up the bulk of the film.
Allen offers a prologue of sorts in the form of a brief childhood autobiography using the home movies he loved to make, explaining how he was brought up with his two sisters in a supportive Catholic family and how, like many young people, he began feeling dissatisfied, searching for answers to life’s deepest questions. After earning a degree in film, he chanced in the mid-1980s upon the Buddhafield, a bunch of youngsters gamboling happily on the California beach in swimsuits around their smiling leader, whom they simply called The Teacher. As a young man only coming to grips with his sexuality, he soon joined the community, and quickly became its functional videographer, filming sessions in which Michel, seated on a mini-throne, dispensed pearls of what passed for wisdom to his disciples. But he also produced videos showing the sense of wonder and contentment Michel produced in his followers, and their intense desire to be blessed by him with what he called the Knowing, a sort of sacrament administered by laying on of hands, which would supposedly bring direct contact with the divine. Interviewees discuss how they worked in various jobs and handed over much of their earnings to the group, though some of them became Michel’s personal servants.
Problems set in, however, when Michel felt threatened by outsiders, and left on a quest to find a safe haven to resettle in. He finally decided on Austin, Texas, where the group fashioned a supposedly idyllic community which was nonetheless extremely disciplined; Michel, who eventually called himself Andeas (while bestowing new names on disciples, too), was trained in ballet, and demanded that his followers practice dance as well. (In time they would put on elaborate performances in a theatre built by themselves—and viewed only by the group. Michel, of course, was always the star. It also became known that he’d been an actor, with bit roles to his credit in a few Hollywood pictures—and larger ones in porno flicks.) Michel, of course, was always the star.) As he aged, however, Michel/Andreas became increasingly dictatorial, and vain: his cosmetic surgery became more and more obvious.
Still, the members remained docile, until one decided to leave and circulated a letter accusing The Teacher, who had disapproved of any sexual relationships among his followers, of regularly abusing him under the guise of offering him counsel. Other young male followers admitted that they had suffered similar treatment, and the revelations led many to leave the community. Eventually Andreas and his remaining followers were sent off to Hawaii where, it seems, he has begun to assemble a new group, taking for himself yet another name. Allen manages to secretly film a brief, unsettling encounter with him on the beach.
“Holy Hell” juxtaposes clips from Allen’s video diary of the cult’s life, focusing naturally on Michel/Andreas, with the later reminiscences of its ex-members, who are obviously still puzzling through how they could have been taken in for so long. In some cases—including Allen’s—there is also the residue of pain they feel as a result of having submitted so completely to their master’s sexual demands. The explanations they’re able to offer aren’t terribly profound—one opines that in The Teacher Michel simply found “the role of a lifetime,” and it seems that his charisma simply bowled them all over—and outsiders viewing the documentary will undoubtedly find it hard to understand how they could have been bamboozled by such an obvious faker.
But of course the viewer lacks the all-encompassing communal embrace that Buddhafield provided for impressionable—one might simply say naïve—souls who came into its orbit. “Holy Hell” tries to get across the ambiance of a community under the sway of a weirdly magnetic figure, but inevitably it comes up short; nonetheless the taste that it provides is chilling.
And so too is the sense not merely of betrayal but of unnerving complicity that Allen and the other ex-cultists convey in describing what was for some more than two decades of service to an abusive charlatan. The Buddhafield was hardly holy, but in many ways it was surely hell. It’s nice to be told, in the cards that interrupt the closing credits, that so many of its initiates have made fulfilling lives for themselves despite their experience in it.