A documentary that’s equal parts memoir and exposé, Holy Hell focuses on the Buddhafield, a mysterious spiritual group—aka cult—that blossomed in West Hollywood, Calif., and later in Austin, Texas, in the 1980s and ’90s. When the film was first announced as part of this year’s Sundance lineup, the director’s name was kept a secret. Filmmaker Will Allen later said in an interview with Variety that the anonymity helped him finish Holy Hell without interference (and probably didn’t hurt the film’s mystique, either).
The film begins as Allen’s story: A young film school graduate in 1985 finds himself lost among the yuppies of the Reagan era. In voiceover that accompanies family pictures, home movies and archival film clips of Buddhafield members alternating between states of agony and ecstasy, he says, “This is what happened to me on my 22-year search for the truth.” But as Allen and many of his fellow members learn throughout their respective journeys, the truth is often elusive.
Allen served as the Buddhafield’s de facto in-house videographer, capturing the group’s activities over the course of two decades. His inner-circle standing provides access to its leader Michel, the Teacher. The South American transplant is a ballet-loving guru who prefers going shirtless and wearing Ray-Bans and Speedos to the long-flowing robes favored by other cult leaders, such as Father Yod of the Source Family (another Hollywood fringe group that flourished in the 1970s and the subject of a chilling documentary by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos).
In crafting his first feature, Allen intersperses insider footage with more recent interviews with former members. We learn little from them about Michel, whose real name is Jaime Gomez, other than he was a failed actor/dancer/performer who dabbled in gay porn and had a brief cameo in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. The Buddhafield’s doctrines were also a bit nebulous, with Michel practicing hypnosis and Shakti, espousing healthy eating, fitness, a clean lifestyle—and no sex. It’s telling that during its height of popularity—a relative term since the Buddhafield had about 150 members at its apex—no babies were born to any of the young, good-looking and physically fit members.
After the initial fervor settles, Michel becomes increasingly controlling and paranoid. He changes his name to Andreas and then to Rey Ji, corresponding with each of his moves, first to Austin and then to Hawaii, where he still teaches today. Most adherents embrace the Buddhafield’s dedication to “service.” At first, followers serve outwardly, caring for those less fortunate than themselves. This altruism leads to a blissful existence for many in the group. Later, the service aspect turns internal, with members dedicating themselves to Michel—cooking, cleaning, driving and massaging their dear leader. One interviewee reveals that he carried an oversized chair for Michel, following him wherever he went so he could sit in comfort at any time.
Holy Hell grows more damning of Michel as he becomes more interested in staging elaborate one-night-only ballets (casting himself in the lead, naturally) for members of the Buddhafield. The Hollywood-esque rehearsal and performance sequences are reminiscent of Scientology show footage found in Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, and to an extent, the surreal nature of the recreations seen in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.
Holy Hell follows the standard course of other exposés on cults and spiritual groups: Although the roots of a particular sect may be based in good or innocent intentions, the god complexes of the leaders muck everything up. From an outsider’s perspective, we easily observe a small, over-tanned man with a creepy stare who has an inexplicable hold on a number of lost souls and truth seekers, desperately looking for meaning, connection, a family or a sense of belonging in their lives. These followers coalesce under Michel, and find strength in their created community. When sexual misconduct allegations against Michel surface later in the film, it should surprise no one, but the cult’s members are shattered. Their beliefs are rocked to the core, and the pain and anger are both palpable and heart-wrenching. We can’t help but empathize with them, even though many of us will never fully understand the depth of their trauma.
What begins as a video memoir evolves into a much larger portrait of betrayal, grief and healing. While Allen inserts his presence on occasion, mostly through voiceover and brief film segments, he lets his fellow Buddhafield members do much of the talking and criticizing of their former guru. It’s a wise choice to not put himself at the center of his own documentary, but this avoidance of the spotlight also indirectly reveals that the filmmaker’s own psyche hasn’t fully recovered from two decades under Michel’s spell. During a confrontational moment toward the end of Holy Hell, an exchange between former student and teacher comes off as awkward—almost timid—though it’s deeply traumatic for Allen. Yet while it seems the enigmatic Michel manages to evade the truth and sidestep any controversy once again, Allen’s camera pulls back the curtain sufficiently to show that Michel’s just delusional enough to believe his own hype.
Director: Will Allen
Writer: Will Allen
Starring: Will Allen, Dimitrius Pulido, Phillipe Coquet, David Christopher, Radhia Gleis, Amy Allen and Cristala Allen
Release Date: May 27, 2016 in Los Angeles and New York
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.